Wine industry joins calls to let in more migrant workers as winter pruning season approaches

By Sally Murphy of RNZ

The wine industry is backing calls by orchardists to open the borders to the vital pacific workforce.

Hawke's Bay fruit growers say fruit is rotting due to the large labour shortage.

Yesterday they urged the Government to open the border to the Pacific Islands to allow thousands of workers to come here as part of the recognised seasonal employer (RSE) scheme.

They said it's too late for this season but want clarity for 2022.

But New Zealand Wine chief executive Philip Gregan said it isn't too late for a bubble to allow workers in for winter pruning on grape vines.

"The sooner a bubble is organised with the Pacific the better, RSE workers have been a big part of the industry for over a decade and come back year after year so they are experienced workers who don't require training."

Last year the Government granted access to 2,000 horticulture workers from the Pacific to help with the summer harvest.

James Dicey who manages 300 hectares of vines in Central Otago for Grape Vision said it's not enough.

"We have about 5,000 RSE workers in the country and with the extra 2,000 that takes us up to 7,000 - we usually operate with over double that.

"Somehow in Central Otago we have managed to fill all jobs this summer through university students and the few backpackers who remain in the country but we need the experienced workers here for the winter."

He said his region isn't as badly affected as Blenheim where there isn't enough unemployment to fill vacancies and a shortage of appropriate accommodation for seasonal workers looking to move there from other parts of the country.

"It's too late for the apple growers to get their apples off the trees and I really feel for them but it's not too late for the grape industry.

"The Pacific workforce is critical, they're highly trained, experienced and they know how things work so they're very productive."

Dicey doesn't understand why there isn't already quarantine free travel between New Zealand and Pacific nations without COVID-19.

"I'm already stressing about next summer, I have 40 workers that I need to bring in from Vanuatu and I have no certainty that they're going to get here, it takes six months to do the paperwork - so If we can't start that soon I won't have them here in time for October."

"Some of these guys have been working for me for 15 years and not being able to get here to work is stressful for them," he said.

"There's no tourism in Vanuatu, some have stayed here to work but those who did go home are very much regretting their decision, they're getting by on their savings from last year but are worrying about not being able to afford school for their children."

He said if the workers can't get into New Zealand, vines simply won't be cropped creating huge losses for the sector.