Labour shortage rots fruits in Hawke’s Bay

Labour shortage rots fruits in Hawke’s Bay

Michael Cropp

Fruit is rotting on the ground in Hawke’s Bay amid a massive worker shortage and orchardists warn that overworked pickers are suffering more accidents.

The official labour shortage first declared for Hawke’s Bay six weeks ago, with 192 tourists granted approval to work in orchards, expired on Friday, April 5, 2019.

Too little, too late

It was immediately extended, but growers say it’s too little, too late.

Phil Paynter from Johnny Appleseed Holdings had to say ‘Goodbye’ to 22 hard-working pickers last week.

He said that with a little more warning, he could have kept them.

“When the labour shortage expired last Friday, we laid off 22 staff. There are no tourist numbers by the time you get into April to find those people (again),” he said.

Many workers would have needed to re-apply for visa variations, which take about a week to process, Mr Paynter said.

Visa Variations

Immigration New Zealand Manager Matt Hoskin said that Visa variations could be granted only “for the duration of the declared labour shortage.”

“If an individual was initially granted a variation of conditions for the Hawke’s Bay and wants to continue working following the extension of the labour shortage, they should reapply for a further variation of conditions,” he said.

Mr Paynter said that he also had 115 overseas workers under the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme (RSES) this year, but they were only confirmed a fortnight before the harvest began and that more certainty was needed.

Orchards suffer

Anthony Rarere runs the Pick Hawke’s Bay Co-op, which supplies labour to its 50 member orchards. It was still about 70 pickers short, he said, and that meant some orchards could not get the fruit off the trees quickly enough.

“We have one of our orchards in particular, whose summer fruit just rotted on the tree and fell off. So obviously that’s going to hurt his bottom line,” he said.

Mr Rarere said that because of the shortage, pickers were working up to 70 hours a week.

“It is hard yakka. It is up in the morning at 530 am or 6 am. It is working in cold conditions including rain and wind,” he said.

The industry estimates that workers need to climb about 20 kms vertically on ladders, with about 20 kgs hanging around their necks, to pick a hectare of apple trees.

Increasing accidents

The long hours due to the shortage were leading to fatigue and an increase in accidents, Mr Rarere said.

The industry said the pay was good, with experienced pickers earning $20 to $25 an hour.

Shelley Hannah-Kingi, who coordinates the Tairāwhiti Beneficiary Advocacy Trust , said that was still not high enough to make up for the precariousness of seasonal work for out-of-towners.

“If you go there and you are there only for eight weeks, how do you get back? Because a lot of the time even though you are making a good income, you are living in areas where you are living off takeaways,” she said.

That, plus accommodation expenses, meant many could not save much money, she said.

Housing shortage

Housing is also a factor – there is a shortage in Hawke’s Bay – and Ms Hannah-Kingi said that the people she worked with in the Gisborne area did not want to leave and sacrifice their spot on social housing waiting lists because they would be at the bottom if they came back.

Phil Paynter agreed that more accommodation would make a difference.

“If you have some certainty on the dynamics of the system and the availability of labour, then you have the confidence to invest in housing and that is something we desperately need to do,” he said.

Growers are also pushing for changes to the RSES, including a higher cap and more forward planning.

The government is reviewing the Scheme, analysing 641 submissions, with changes expected to be announced mid-year.

Michael Cropp is a Reporter at Radio New Zealand. The above story and pictures have been published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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Photo Caption:

Yummy Apples from Hawke’s Bay

Paul Paynter (Photos Supplied to RANZ)

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