The New Zealand Herald

Where are the pickers?

- Christian Fuller

Orchardist­s say more than $600 million is set to be lost to regional economies like Hawke’s Bay’s as a result of the massive shortage of workers to pick fruit.

Yesterday they called a press conference to demand the Government open a travel bubble with the Pacific Islands before the 2022 season, to allow what would normally be up to 14,410 workers to arrive as part of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

The apple and pear industries alone are predicting losses of $600m-plus to provincial economies, with national crop forecasts 14 per cent down on 2020.

Orchardist­s and other industry leaders detailed the extent of their experience­s this season at an unpicked Meeanee orchard yesterday.

John Bostock said the plea is not a want, but a need.

“We haven’t been able to fill any of our packhouses on any given day throughout the season and don’t have enough available New Zealanders to do the jobs,” he said.

The Government has let in 2000 RSE workers to cover the shortage this year, but a lack of space for more in MIQ has left huge shortfalls.

NZ Apples and Pears CEO Alan Pollard said prediction­s of a potential $1.1 billion hit to the Hawke’s Bay’s economy wouldn’t be far off the mark. “Our fate is sealed for this season,” he said. “But we’ve got Covid-free Pacific Island countries — why aren’t we talking about free movement across those borders?

“We estimated an 11,000 [worker] deficit across horticultu­re and viticultur­e. We got 2000 in, but we’re estimating we’re between 5000 and 10,000 short.”

Orchardist Bruce Mitchell said the ongoing shortage has created “anxiety and desperatio­n beyond belief” for small-scale companies like his. “We’ve never experience­d a crisis like this,” he added.

Medium-sized apple packhouse Green Planet Limited said it needs 85 employees just to function, but are having to make do with 65.

“We can’t do another year of this,” said owner Harry Masterton. “Maybe Jacinda (Ardern) should pop along, have a job in our packhouse. She can have $22-an-hour, then get married in the pruned grapes.”

The shortage remains despite 2631 people moving off benefits into seasonal work between November 15, 2020, and February 28, 2021.

Paul Paynter, of Yummy Fruits, said his wage bill is up 15 per cent on last year, but the crop is down 25 per cent — with only three weeks left of the picking season.

“When I first started with the company we had 14 full-time staff; now we have 210. For the first time in 25 years, that number is likely to go backwards,” he said.

National Party horticultu­re and agricultur­e spokesman David Bennett said the sector’s frustratio­ns have “boiled over”, with growers right to be “extremely frustrated at a Government that hasn’t acted on their projection­s of labour shortages and loss to the Hawke’s Bay economy”.

Craig Hickson, owner of Progressiv­e Meats, said the labour shortage has taken its toll on other sectors. “In my 40 years of operations in Hawke’s Bay, this has been the most difficult and challengin­g and worst experience in terms of having sufficient people to work,” he said.

“We’ve been short of workers right through the peak lamb season and we still remain short today.”

Wattie’s Hastings agricultur­al manager Bruce Mackay said being the “next one down the chain” has led to an erratic supply of product and huge staff absenteeis­m.

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 ?? Photo / Hawke’s Bay Today ?? Apples are left to rot in an orchard near Napier as the impact of labour shortages hits.
Photo / Hawke’s Bay Today Apples are left to rot in an orchard near Napier as the impact of labour shortages hits.

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