Matching crop growth with workers
Potential horticulture labour shortages in the years ahead was the big subject at the recent Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Conference held in Tauranga.
HorticultureNZ chief executive, Mike Chapman, who is also chair of the national horticulture/viticulture labour governance group (NLSG) opened the conference by saying that what applied with the last Government was not what would apply with the current one.
The last Labour Government had created an RSE scheme with a strong Pacific focus. He also said it had made clear that RSE was a privilege not a right and an RSE policy review had been foreshadowed. The risks to the scheme were not meeting Government’s expectations, poor employer performance sector wide and not meeting customers’ expectations.
The conference programme was designed to tackle exploitation, hear the Government’s expectations, have some input into the RSE process review, learn of career training pathways and hear more from RSE employers, he said.
Dave Courtney, Zespri chief grower and alliances officer looked at future opportunities and challenges for the kiwifruit industry. Around 82 percent of the crop is grown in the Bay of Plenty. Nationally there are 2435 growers with 14,500 canopy hectares of the crop. With 3055 registered orchards most are between two and five hectares with the average size for Green of 3.5ha and for Gold of 2.6 ha. There are 56 packhouses and 67 coolstores used.
Over 400 on-orchard labour contractors are registered employing around 10,000 permanent staff and around 15,000 seasonal staff.
Zespri’s strategy is developing and marketing the world’s leading portfolio of kiwifruit products for 12 months of the year. It has a confident view of long-term demand and aims to strengthen its demand position.
“Kiwifruit is still an underdeveloped category within the fruitbowl but with a huge growth potential,” he said.
There were a number of risks of not accelerating growth, such as giving up shelf space to other kiwifruit suppliers as well as other fruit.
“Loss of share within the fruitbowl means it will be more costly to build mental and physical availability,” he said.
That would forfeit the opportunity to bring further value back to growers and the industry.
“It’s a dynamic race,” he said.
“Standing still means falling behind.”
Images by Ivor Earp-Jones “Standing still means falling behind.”
Zespri’s global target was $4.5 billion revenue by 2025 but there were a number of risks such as global political and economic uncertainty and biosecurity risk had not gone away. Growers faced increased compliance and growing costs including the minimum wage going up as well as land, labour and water constraints.
There was also the risk of loss of market access to a major market and competition particularly in the Gold space as markets didn’t develop to plan. Competition from other fruit also had to be considered in the form of another fresh fruit being introduced or more convenient fruit products.
Projected growth of the industry was equivalent to another Te Puke which requiring significant new plantings, a bigger, more capable workforce and post-harvest investment. There was a seasonal shortage of labour based on current supply estimates with the seasonal peak compounding over time. An attraction strategy needed to be implemented addressing worker welfare, flexible and reliable working arrangements, accommodation and transport, career pathways and investment in technology development.
As well as industry-led strategies to address labour shortages there were possible areas for collaboration and new approaches to utilising under-employed and unemployed workers. These would all involve continued access to the RSE scheme, skills training and working with Government.
Gary Jones from Apples and Pears said the NZ apple and pear industry would need 8708 more seasonal harvest workers by 2030 with the harvest that year estimated to require 20285 seasonal workers and 2311 more permanent workers.
The Global.G..A.P. Risk Assessment on Social Practices (GRASP) scheme covers permanent employees, seasonal workers, piece-rate workers and day labourers. Labour contractors were captured into GRASP and growers who used labour contractors were required to provide evidence that they complied to GRASP
and appropriate GAP controls during an audit. Jones said social standards and tools that assessed social risk in agricultural supply chains were increasingly the focus of critical media and non-governmental organisation reports.
“Stakeholders within food supply chains are being challenged to monitor and mitigate risks related to poor working conditions and human rights abuse.”
Professor Hamish Gow, director of business, innovation and strategy at Massey University said it was partnering with industry, Government, and domestic and foreign educational providers to establish a regional hub model across the Pacific. A possible model was base training being provided offseason, which would be a combination of residential and online, at
regional hubs across the Pacific. This could be combined with technical and scientific training provided in New Zealand on the shoulders of the season or in seasonal gaps.
Tim Allen from Student Job Search (SJS) said RSE was a great scheme but there were still gaps.
SJS, which he described as more than a passive job board, but less than an agency, was keen to help with its unique matchmaking service between employers and tertiary students running since 1982. It was 90 percent Government funded, a free service and filled around 27,000 jobs every year, was big on service and quality and health and safety.
“More employers are seeing that students can be the answer.”
Kate Longman, Primary ITO’s national sector manager – horticulture and viticulture, said it was active in horticulture and viticulture production industry partnership groups and collaborated with the Ministry for Social Development (MSD) in pre-employment initiatives. It carried out effective marketing and promotion for apprenticeships aligned with schools’ activities.
It also transitioned RSE learners from expiring Level 1 programmes with a new limited credit programme in place as well as new industry training and apprenticeship programmes at Levels 3 and 4. The New Zealand Certificate in Primary Industries Skills (Level 2) RSE was now in place and going forward any new RSE enrolments would be directly into the new qualification.
TIGHT LABOUR MARKET
Dion Gamperle from the NZ Institute of Economic Research reported on the known labour shortage in NZ’s horticulture and viticulture industries, which he said was important because it helped with discussions on changes to the national RSE cap. He said there was a tight labour market with unemployment at its lowest level since December 2008. Growers were having difficulty finding both skilled and unskilled labour as there were lower numbers of working holiday workers and international students.
Meanwhile the growth in demand for labour was expected to continue driven mostly by more hectares planted in horticultural crops rather than increases in yields. The biggest deficit in labour availability was seen with kiwifruit in April, pipfruit in March, summerfruit in January and wine grapes in July. In the year to June 2019 it was estimated the maximum number of workers available was 27,408 while 30,071 were needed, a difference of 2663. But by the year ended June 2024 it was predicted that there would be 29,462 workers available while 35,556 were required, a larger difference of 6428.
“Further work needs to be done to improve estimates of the level of contractor supply to reduce the uncertainty of the estimates,” he said.
And more comprehensive collection of data on accommodation and transport provided was required to provide a more informed view of the working conditions.
Michael Jones, senior advisor, Pacifica labour and skills for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) looked at the visa options available outside of RSE. These included refugees, those who fitted the Pacific Access Category or Samoan quota and the Skilled Migrant Category all of whom were residents. Then there were those with essential skills, those who had approval in principle, those on working holidays and those in the supplementary seasonal employment category who all had temporary visas.
“We strongly recommend that employers obtain an approval in principle to recruit overseas workers if they intend to recruit multiple workers for positions which are not listed on one of the skills shortage lists,” he said.
“This will ensure more efficient processing of individual work visa applications as the labour market test and employer sustainability will have already been completed.”
Andrew Newbery, the RSE Unit’s immigration manager, reviewed the year to June 30 saying there was increased use of joint approval to recruit (ATRs) which were up from over 2000 workers to over 3000 workers There were around 14,000 approvals with 11,079 worker arrivals compared with 10,400 year before. There were 149 RSE employers across NZ with more accredited this year and the RSE cap was increased to 11,100 worker arrivals.
“The cap is not a target, it cannot be exceeded,” he said.
Employers still needed to provide evidence to justify an increase which would need to be agreed by all parties.
Even if the ATR was supported by MSD it needed to fit within national or regional allocations as joint ATRs assisted with national numbers only. Joint ATRs needed to be submitted together but at present the RSE Unit was handling all applications and up to date with workflows.
George Rarere, MBIE’s manager of the Pasifika labour and skills
unit, gave details of worker arrivals by month and country. He said the development of Country Action Plans (CAPs) for Pacific Island countries followed the successful review of the Strengthening Pacific Partnership (SPP) programme in 2016. Each PIC had provided its draft CAP to MBIE which would now be assessed after consultation, finalised and then put into place.
Over the last three years RSE stakeholders had raised concerns about worker behaviour detrimental to productivity, their brand and the general integrity of RSE, he said. So questions were asked of the Pacific labour market units (LMUs) with further investigations revealing no consistent service delivery framework across the LMUs.
Pre-departure training was a crucial part of the process covering subjects such as the NZ working environment and expectations of key stakeholders. Over the last 12 months MBIE had consolidated existing efforts into an RSE predeparture toolkit which would be rolled out across the Pacific in late November or early December. And it had commissioned a team led by Professor Richard Bedford to undertake a study to assess the impacts after 10 years of RSE.
It would take around two years to complete.