Coronavirus: Orchardists urge Government to relax MIQ rules for seasonal workers at low risk of COVID-19

Orchardists and seasonal workers want the Government to relax the rules around managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) for countries at low risk of coronavirus.

New Zealand usually has around 14,000 seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands doing skilled jobs in the horticulture and wine industries - many of whom are the sole breadwinners for their entire family.

Terick Lele's been doing seasonal work in Otago's Teviot Valley for the last decade and calls Melrose Orchard his second home.

He grows the trees, he thins them, he picks them and he prunes them - but he's been stuck in Southland since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Tropical Cyclone Harold devastated his island of Malo, in the north of Vanuatu, last April.

"Everything is damaged, our homes - everything," he explained.

It also wiped out the island's main sources of income: the coconut and cocoa trees. That means he's the only one providing money for his family and others in the village as they try to rebuild.

"I have a family. I miss them, I want to go back," he said.

It's the same story for Leo Dangisi, who makes daily video calls to his wife and daughter back home.

"Yeah it's hard. It's not easy. But you know, no more choice - if I go back, who's going to help my family?" he said.

His wife was pregnant when he came to New Zealand in summer 2019, giving birth to their first baby near the end of the level 4 lockdown.

"He's seen this baby grow up for the last 12 months over Zoom. And that's a pretty tough call," says Melrose Orchard owner Peter Vernon.

For  Vernon, this past season's been his hardest ever.

"I've had fruit that I've left behind because we couldn't go back and pick the last pick," he explained.

Orchardists say the various Government efforts to encourage Kiwi workers into the industry - like the $5000 to Work scheme - were "a miserable failure".

"The $5000 hasn't paid off at all in my view," he said, "and they didn't last."

The Government's now freeing up 300 managed isolation spots a month for recognised seasonal workers, which costs orchardists $6000 per person.

"These are people that know our orchards, they know our industry, they've been working for a long time," says Teviot Valley orchardist Stephen Darling. "And every week we delay we're losing those skilled people to Australia."

Vanuatu is an extremely low-risk country. It's had just three COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

ACT leader David Seymour says seasonal workers from COVID-19-free countries should be welcomed here without two weeks in quarantine.

"This man is more likely to catch COVID in MIQ than he is in Vanuatu or in New Zealand. I just can't believe this Government that talks about kindness has stopped him seeing his child for a year for no public health reason at all."

Opening a travel bubble with Vanuatu would be even better - giving skilled workers a job and restarting tourism in the struggling nation.