Matching workers with kiwifruit growth
The kiwifruit industry was able to get through the peak of this year’s harvesting season, but in the future that’s not going to be enough.
Major employment issues which caused a worker shortage of around 1200 people have been highlighted in a recent report, which quantified the kiwifruit industry’s labour problems for the first time.
Published by New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated (NZKGI) it was co-written by its chief executive, Nikki Johnson and communications manager, Mike Murphy, while Zespri’s, Sue Groenewald helped with data collection. It stems from a NZKGI survey of industry participants earlier this year so figures are based on the 2017 season.
Nikki said the report’s findings require the industry to step up – and now. It highlighted that there were no silver bullets, but now there are clearly defined areas to work on, thanks to development of a model to show how many fulltime equivalents (FTEs) are needed per hectare to complete all the seasonal tasks the industry requires. In simplistic terms, for orchard tasks, the industry needs a labour unit for every 0.46 hectare of Green and 0.64ha of Gold. This number is multiplied either by the number of Green or Gold per hectare.
“That identifies how many FTE staff are needed,” she said.
“Packhouse figures are based on how many trays are packed per person per hour. Extrapolated out to the number of hectares we have right now, the report suggests we needed 15,678 FTEs in 2017.”
So 2027 projections might mean a further 7000 seasonal staff would be required. Seasonal work is defined as nonpermanent and short-term labour, and is a significant part of kiwifruit’s overall workforce with seasonal workers employed from anything between two-weeks to nine months. And New Zealand workers might be employed during harvest but not at pruning, so the FTE unit was an easy way to record labour units.
While labour shortage problems are acknowledged, the situation in 2018 turned out to be “a bit more of an issue” than anticipated due to several factors.
In 2016 30 percent of the Bay of Plenty’s workforce were international students attending language schools. Nikki said the previous Government applied more consistent requirements around international schools which resulted in three big language and business schools in the region disappearing.
By law, international students are only allowed to work 20 hours a week, but the closures had a short-term impact on the kiwifruit industry.
“We need to replace that workforce from somewhere else.”
Earlier this year following a declaration of the labour shortage by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), about 600 people made themselves available, including around 200 MSD clients.
“We got through the season but it was stressful on many,” Nikki said.
“We were lucky with good weather, so the pressure wasn’t as strong as it might have been.”
But with the Gold crop expanding, it’s a good time to start conversations because Gold has different labour requirements, being more labour intensive than Green. And it’s forecast to
account for around two-thirds of industry volumes by 2027, meaning the industry faces an extreme labour demand peak.
“Increasing Gold plantings will create critical pressure points,” she said.
“Obviously building new capacity that only gets used for a couple of weeks a year is not the best way of doing things but there are initiatives we can use to spread out that peak.”
Roles could be linked together better, which provides employees with more consistent work and added certainty around their employment. The industry could begin providing 10-month contracts which would attract good people.
Pay rates are another big concern.
“There’s been much talk about pay rates and this report demonstrates there’s already good money available for motivated people,” Nikki said.
Some staff earn $25 per hour and we’ve heard about people earning more than that.”
There are opportunities for workers to progress from basic packhouse jobs to higher-skilled roles within weeks. If they demonstrate aptitude and motivation they can step up to line supervisor or quality control roles relatively quickly. Nikki said there are a number of openings to move up the pay scale.
“People think it’s a minimum wage industry and we realise some employers only pay minimum rates,” she said.
“We encourage people to go for employers who look after their staff and pay good rates.”
If they supported better employers that would help the industry raise the bar overall.
Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) workers are not widely used in kiwifruit, making up only 17 percent. Nikki said that’s a big difference between it and the pipfruit and summerfruit sectors, but RSEs are critically important because they provide stability particularly for night-shifts and weekend work.
With pruning being skilled and difficult work it’s critical to have a core of good workers able to complete the highmaintenance task, but backpackers tend not to stay long in one place and many Kiwis don’t want that work.
The industry will have to get its head around harnessing the potential of people who can’t work full-time but are more than happy to work part-time or for a few hours per day, Nikki said.