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Imminent Crisis Threatens Central Otago Fruit Exports

Central Otago fruit growers support their industry’s call for urgent action from Government to address the looming shortage of horticultural workers, says Ettrick Fruit Growers Association Chairman, Peter Vernon. Last week, New Zealand Apples and Pears raised concerns that the $870 million dollar apple industry will be at risk if a seasonal workforce is not assembled.

The New Zealand horticulture sector usually hosts more than 14,000 workers from the Pacific Islands for up to seven months to strengthen the workforce on local orchards and vineyards. The New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Scheme was established in 2007 by Helen Clark’s Labour government. The RSE scheme is viewed internationally as a best practise model in social responsibility for labour mobility. The Central Otago region employs up to 5,000 temporary staff at the peak of the season for apple, apricot and cherry work, comprising New Zealand and RSE workers, plus working holiday visa holders. Labour planning shows that even with the numbers of recently unemployed New Zealanders now available, there will simply not be enough suitable people to fill all the seasonal roles needed

“Our ability to keep our local permanent staff employed, and to take on Covid19 displaced NZ workers is completely dependent upon the return of our skilled Pacific Island workforce” says Mr Vernon.

Local growers have hosted Pacific workers for more than a decade and are desperate for the RSE scheme to resume.

“It’s a no brainer that people from Covid19 free Pacific Islands do not present a health risk when returning to NZ. There is more chance of catching Covid19 from the Wallabies coming to play the Bledisloe Cup, than from Pacific RSE workers”, Mr Vernon says.

The long relationship with Pacific workers is beneficial to New Zealand and Pacific Island families and villages. Fruit is picked for export sales, Kiwi jobs are supported and wages are spent in rural NZ as well as remitted back to Pacific communities. This is often the only income these families receive, to rebuild houses and churches devastated this year by cyclone Harold, and to pay for food and school fees.

Orchardists recognise the seasonal need for large numbers of part year staff. This creates difficulty for job seekers needing 12 month income security. The seasonal availability of Pacific Island people and (previously) backpackers, complements and underpins the permanent local New Zealand workforce. Export focussed fruit businesses support thousands of full-time jobs in Central Otago and other regional New Zealand economies.

“The horticulture industry in Otago is facing a potential critical loss in investor and grower confidence if fruit rots on the tree because we cannot pick and sell it. Even more downstream jobs will be lost along with crucial export revenues if we cannot access our offshore skilled Pacific workforce”. Mr Vernon says.

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