Author: Eleanor Ainge Roy
Labour shortage prompts government to amend laws, allowing holidaymakers to work in orchards in last-ditch attempt to avoid fruit rotting on vines
Foreign workers are being called upon to pick and pack New Zealand’s national fruit, as an acute labour shortage forces the government to relax conditions on holiday visas in a last-ditch bid to harvest millions of kiwi fruits.
Kiwi fruit growers in the Bay of Plenty were heading into the peak of the harvesting season and unable to fill hundreds of vacancies, prompting the government to declare an official seasonal labour shortage in the region for the first time in a decade.
This would allow overseas visitors to change the conditions of their visas so they can work in orchards and packhouses.
The last thing we want is fruit rotting on trees or on the ground,” said prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
Kiwi fruit work is physically demanding, commands minimum wage (NZ$16.50 an hour) and requires workers to relocate on a temporary basis, making it an unappealing employment option for many New Zealanders, including those living on welfare benefits.
“We’re having ongoing discussions with leaders in the sector on how to make the industry more attractive to workers by improving employment practices,” said regional commissioner Mike Bryant.
Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson said the problem of filling seasonal vacancies forced growers to appeal for government assistance.
Demand for kiwi fruit has surged worldwide – particularly from China – with 19% more of the fruit produced this year and half still waiting to be picked on the vine.
There are 6,000 unemployed people in the Bay of Plenty region, and 1,200 workers needed on kiwi fruit orchards immediately.
Managing director of fruit company Apata, Stuart Weston, told Radio New Zealand raising payrates would not make a difference and the situation was “dire”.
“Inexplicably people will choose to go hungry rather than work in a packhouse,” he said.
“We’re sending vans to Murupara, Tokaroa, Whakatāne and Rotorua – we’re just trying to reach out further and further to capture people who wish to work.”
The kiwi fruit industry’s forecasted contribution to the Bay of Plenty’s GDP will increase 135% by 2030 to $2.04bn, and require 14,329 more workers.