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Worker shortage fears grow as NZ harvest looms

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DUNEDIN, New Zealand (NZ Herald/Pacnews) —  Covid-19 will create a seismic shift in production for Central Otago's horticulture and viticulture industries this season.

Assembling the seasonal workforce needed is going to be near impossible. In Ettrick, gaps in the workforce existed pre-pandemic.

The Teviot Valley is a sea of blossoming stone and pip fruit trees at this time of year.

The blossom pays testament to the size, all things going well, of the harvest and blankets the valley across about 25 orchards from Roxburgh East through Dumbarton to Ettrick.

This season that harvest is under threat.

The flow-on effect will hit associated industries, such as packaging, cool stores, transport and the sectors those employed on orchards on a seasonal basis spend money in.

Pip fruit production injects NZ$35 million into the Otago economy alone.

Ettrick Fruit Growers Association chairman Pete Vernon puts it bluntly.

Urgent action is needed from the government to address the looming shortage of horticultural workers, Vernon said.

In short, let recognized seasonal employer or RSE workers return.

They are needed for thinning stone fruit from next month.

Labor shortages will become even more acute in November, when pip fruit thinning ramps up, he said.

As things stood, that acute shortage will continue all the way through to picking.

"There's massive overlap."

The problem extends beyond the gates of his business, Melrose Orchard, to every orchardist in the Ettrick area, across Central Otago and beyond.

For the viticulture industry the issue is yet to rear its head as its season started later but it is coming.

The New Zealand horticulture sector usually hosts more than 14,000 workers from the Pacific Islands.

In Central Otago, they came predominantly from Vanuatu for up to seven months under the RSE scheme to bolster the workforce on orchards and vineyards.

The Central Otago region employed up to 5000 temporary staff, comprising New Zealand and RSE workers and those on working holiday visas, at the peak of the season for apple, apricot and cherry work.

“Our ability to keep our local permanent staff employed, and to take on Covid-19-displaced Kiwi workers is completely dependent upon the return of our skilled Pacific Island workforce,” Vernon said.

In a normal season there were labor shortages and pre-pandemic there had been agreement from the government to expand the RSE scheme. 

This season the impact of Covid-19 on the sector is something he and his fellow orchardists believe the government has failed to grasp.

“It is almost like the government doesn't believe us.”

The spin-off from border closures has affected the whole South Pacific.

Covid-19 has decimated the Vanuatu economy, which with the loss of tourism, has led to an 85% unemployment rate among Vanuatuans, Vernon said.

Relationships between those workers and their Central Otago employers have spanned up to 13 years and become inter-generational as sons join their fathers as RSE workers.

“Those relationships have ended with the strike of a pen.”

The irony is Vanuatu remains unaffected by the pandemic. 

It is, however, reeling from the impact of Cyclone Harold, which devastated large swathes of the islands in April. 

That left RSE workers propping up the Vanuatu economy and those of other Pacific countries and the workers should be allowed to return, he said.

“It's a no-brainer that people from Covid-19-free Pacific Islands do not present a health risk when returning to New Zealand.

“The Wallabies coming to play the Bledisloe Cup [rugby competition] pose more risk than RSE workers.”

Darling's Fruit Company owner Stephen Darling said he, like most orchardists in the Ettrick area, employed Vanuatu and Solomon Island workers and many have been returning to his orchard since the scheme began in 2007.

“They have become like family.”

A key point is that Vanuatu and Solomon Island workers are highly skilled, having amassed increased experience each season, and that is something that cannot be replaced by more short-term workers such as backpackers, Darling said.

In the case of the latter, he admitted the work is “not for everyone.”

For the RSE workers their collective experience means their approach to the work is different.

“They become quite protective, they have a sense of ownership — and that means they want the work done right.”

Darling's brother Mark Darling, a pip and stone fruit grower, specializes in apples and pears but adds an organic component to his business.

“It's the same job but there is more to it — more pruning and more thinning,” Mark Darling said.

For him the organic side of his production means he needs more workers.

“There is a lot more work producing and thinning organically grown apples without conventional chemicals.”

Ettrick Gardens owner John Preedy mixes stone and pip fruit production with growing vegetables and berry fruits.

A regular at the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin since 2003, he said having his regular Vanuatu workers return is critical to his business.

“The thing that concerns me is my guys are skilled because I grow such a variety of crops,” Preedy said.

“Our skilled staff are sitting on those islands wanting to come back,” he said.

Con van der Voort is a major player in Central Otago horticulture, having started in the industry in 1960.

His pip fruit business, CAJ van der Voort, operates a state-of-the-art packing facility in Ettrick.

The relationship between horticulture and RSE workers is reciprocal and needs to be maintained, he said.

“The fruit industry needs them.”

It cut both ways.

“These people [RSE workers] are desperate — they have nothing else.”

Having crunched the numbers, the men said they believe the horticulture industry nationwide faces a labor shortage of close to 50,000 people.

That includes the loss of backpackers on working holiday visas, of whom only about 11,000 remain in the country.

The government last week announced a raft of immigration policy changes to help fill labor shortages and establish class exceptions for border entry for skilled workers.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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