Extra MIQ spaces a boost for agriculture sector, but growers say cost to employers 'too high'

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor Photo credit: Getty Images

While an announcement to allow more than 2000 seasonal workers to enter the country in time for next year's harvest season has been welcomed by the horticulture industry, the sector says the cost to growers and employers is simply 'too high'.

As well as seasonal workers, spaces in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities will also be given to shearers and rural mobile plant machinery operators, with 500 spaces per fortnight allocated to skilled workers from a range of industries over the coming 10 months.

The move comes after the country's horticulture industry has been crippled by an ongoing labour shortage, with many orchards having to leave fruit to rot on the trees due to a lack of workers. The viticulture industry is also concerned the shortage will affect the winter pruning season.

Monday's announcement will see around 300 recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers arrive from Pacific countries from June, with a total of 2400 arriving by March next year.

There are normally around 14,000 RSE workers in New Zealand during peak harvest season, but last year due to the country's closed borders that number was only around 4000, leading to an industry-side shortfall of around 10,000.

Late last year the Government gave border exemptions for a further 2000 workers but the sector said it was still struggling to find enough labour.

Horticulture New Zealand said Pacific workers are an "integral part" of the industry's workforce.

"The RSE scheme is very much a win-win - for the Pacific and for the New Zealand horticulture industry," Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman said on Monday.

"That is why the horticulture industry has advocated so vigorously for the scheme to continue and for some sort of Pacific bubble to be formed, given New Zealand’s Pacific partner nations are COVID-free, and we now have a vaccine being rolled out."

In announcing the move, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor admitted foreign workers were needed in the industry despite the Government's efforts to train up local workers to fill the gaps.

"The Government and food and fibre sector have been working hard to mitigate worker shortages by training and upskilling New Zealanders, but there is still the need for additional labour," O'Connor said.

 "This decision should see around 2400 more RSE workers entering New Zealand in time for next summer’s harvest season and pruning this winter. This is in addition to the 7300 RSE workers currently in the country, including the 2000 the Government approved to support the horticulture and viticulture industries during the recent summer harvest season.

"Border class exceptions have also been agreed for 40 more shearers and 125 rural mobile plant machinery operators for the 2021/2022 season - subject to completion of sector workforce plans, a model to upskill New Zealanders and agreed wage rates."

Chapman said the horticulture industry had "negotiated strongly" with the Government to reduce the cost to growers and employers, but remained unhappy with the outcome.

"We appreciate the Government acknowledging the need for Pacific workers due to the lack of available New Zealand workers. But we believe the costs to growers and employers for this new cohort are too high, given our own calculations of the actual cost of quarantine, accommodation, and meals, etc. That is why we pushed hard for the Government to reduce the cost and, while we did achieve some concessions, there was limited room for movement and no agreement was reached," Chapman said.

"Given the high cost to growers and employers, they will need to make their own business decisions on whether to participate in this cohort of Pacific workers."

Today's announcement was criticised by the ACT Party, with leader David Seymour saying "it is far too late and doesn't go far enough".

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government needed to balance having enough space in MIQ facilities for New Zealanders wanting to return home and skilled workers coming into the country.