Agriculture sector hopeful trans-Tasman bubble could lead to more foreign workers given MIQ space

While news of the soon-to-begin travel bubble with Australia has been met with excitement by travel lovers and people with family over the ditch, the agriculture sector is hoping it will lead to more foreign workers being allowed into the country.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the bubble - which means quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia - will begin on April 19.

The Government says doing away with quarantine for those arriving from Australia will free up between 1000 and 1300 rooms per fortnight in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities.

Although around 500 of those spaces will be kept as "contingency should they be needed for the trans-Tasman arrangement", the bubble means there are now hundreds of more places available in MIQ.

Now, with many primary industries continuing to face severe labour shortages, there are calls for those free spaces to go to foreign workers in the farming, horticulture and viticulture sectors.

"MIQ spacing has been continually quoted as a barrier for getting the workers we need," Federated Farmers immigration spokesperson Chris Lewis said on Wednesday.

"With more beds becoming available [the Government] should now allow those with agricultural skills to enter the country." 

Lewis said Federated Farmers acknowledged the Government had already made some limited border exceptions for agricultural machinery operators, veterinarians, sheep shearers, animal pregnancy scanners and some skilled dairy staff. However, "these limited exceptions aren't going to go very far with the number of workers needed across the primary industries in the coming months," he said.

"With continued low unemployment and the majority of available workers remaining in the urban centres, all of the primary industries are crying out for labour."

Mike Chapman, chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand, told Newshub he was also hopeful some of the free MIQ spots would go to migrant agriculture workers.

Although the Government granted border exemptions for 2000 recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers from Pacific countries, that only went a small way to covering the total shortfall of between 5000 and 10,000 workers the industry faced during the peak harvest period.

It's estimated the lack of workers will cost the sector hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, with the labour shortage forcing many growers to leave fruit to rot on trees.

Chapman said the agreement with Australia is a "good start" but even if some of the MIQ places do go to workers in the horticulture industry, it comes too late to help growers during the busy harvest period.

However, he said, "in terms of winter pruning it's not too late".

"If there was some movement through these spaces at MIQ it would be a great assistance to the winter pruning and also it would flow through into the spring crop," he said.

"So it would be an enormous assistance."

But while it is important to get workers into the country in time for winter, Chapman said the real focus was avoiding another labour shortage next harvest season.

"To avoid what happened this year we really need to go back to making the RSE scheme work as it always has - a two-way flow of workers up to the cap of 14,400."

He said the best way for that to happen was through vaccinations and "a new system that doesn't involve MIQ".

When asked about the issue on Wednesday, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor told reporters he "certainly will be advocating for more RSE workers to be brought in" if there is an opportunity to do so.

"We'll certainly be putting forward the case that should there be any MIQ space available from the trans-Tasman bubble that some of those places be available for horticulture and agriculture workers," he said.

However, that would have to be balanced by the fact there are still many New Zealanders wanting to come home as well as other sectors calling for essential workers to be given access to MIQ facilities, he said.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said a decision on how to best utilise the extra MIQ rooms was likely later this month.

"The Government will consider the best ways to use the remaining rooms over the coming weeks, including the option of finding more places for people from the Pacific, including the RSE workforce," Hipkins said in a statement to Newshub. 

"[Immigration] Minister [Kris] Faafoi continues to engage with the horticulture and wine sectors around workforce needs, and he reiterates that industries put together plans to better attract New Zealanders and onshore migrants into work."