New Zealand's apple growers preparing for Pacific RSE workers still don't know how many they'll get

New Zealand's apple growers are gearing up to welcome back more Recognised Season Employees (RSE) from the Pacific.

The Government's allowing workers from Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu to bypass MIQ from next month, but exactly how many is still unknown.

August is pruning season on Hawke's Bay apple orchards. Not a lot of fruit to be found, but still plenty of work.

But with the border closed, it's been tough to find workers.

"Oh, my goodness, it's been consuming," says John Evans, owner and manager at orchard R J Flowers.

"Oh, it's been really traumatic," says Paul Paynter, general manager at the Yummy Fruit Company.

"It's been very, very tough," says John Bostock, managing director of Bostock New Zealand.

The Government's hoping to top things up, announcing one-way quarantine-free travel for workers from Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

Apple growers say they're ready - they've been ready all along.

"It's given us a big sigh of relief that I guess there is some light at the end of the tunnel," says Evans.

Bostock built a new $4 million accommodation block for workers in 2019, only getting one season out of it before COVID.

"The Government asked us to build purpose-built facilities for RSE workers to alleviate social housing. We're listening to the Government, we're in behind them. We just want them to be more open," he told Newshub.

There are 160 beds there, they just need people to sleep in them.

"We're ready, we're open. We've not got people yet, so we're just waiting," says Bostock.

There's currently less than half of the usual 14,000 RSE workers in New Zealand. The industry wants certainty that the Government can restore those numbers, soon.

"You need the confidence you can get the crop off the tree, which is where your profit and money comes from to allow you to invest in the future, so it is chicken and egg," explains Allan Pollard, CEO of Apples & Pears NZ.

Managing director of Te Mata exports Murray Tait says it's imperative the workforce is there to pick the crop: New Zealand's reputation depends on it.

"We thought we could do it last year. We said we could do it last year. I think finally now it's been accepted by government officials that we can do it, now we've got to bring them in and do the job we said we can."

Paynter has asked for 60 RSE workers, but doesn't know how many he'll get.

"It's really good news, what we don't know yet is how many people will be allowed work visas. Just because you can come to New Zealand doesn't mean you can work," he says.

The industry says around one-third of its ordinary workforce is Pacific RSE workers, another third is backpackers, who've also been shut out. The last third is Kiwis.

But with New Zealand's unemployment rate at a historic low, finding them has been harder than ever.

"If you go to the hardware store or the supermarket or the cafe down the road, you'll see a sign up: 'workers wanted'," says Paynter.

Horticulture has made huge losses during COVID. Industry leaders have met in Hastings to talk about resilience.

"Probably the greatest impact has been on the mental health and wellbeing of our orchardists. They are stressed and distressed at the moment," says Pollard.

Around half of Evans' workforce is from the Pacific.

Many have been away from their families since before the pandemic. Fijian RSE worker Pine Don Lupe has had to watch from afar as his country struggles to contain COVID-19.

"It's really hard there, I just chat with my family who are still in lockdown," he says.

Evans built his workers accommodation, and offered counselling.

"These guys just add an incredible colour to our workplace. They're positive, they're energetic, they wanna learn," he says.

His workers from Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu now have the option to go home, knowing they can return.

But not all want to: Samoan RSE worker Peniamina Malagamaalii says the Government's announcement gives him more confidence to stay here for a few more months.

"I will be extending for another next season. So it's good to work more, get more money to support our family," Malagamaalii says.

Because more workers here doesn't just mean more apples off the tree - it helps families thousands of kilometres away too.