Striking a balance on seasonal workers in regions

The Government has tried to strike the right balance between taking the immediate heat off early harvesters, while encouraging the horticulture and viticulture industries to employ Kiwis in the regions. Laura Walters reports.

The Government has increased the seasonal worker cap by 1550 to 14,400, but that’s just half what the horticulture and viticulture industries say they need.

Over the past week, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has been under pressure to release the annual cap for the Recognised Seasonal Worker Scheme (RSE).

RSE workers, who come mainly from the Pacific, make up 20 percent of workers in the horticulture and viticulture industry.

With the industry growing – horticulture export revenue grew 13.7 percent to $6.1 billion in the year to June and is expected to reach $6.3b this financial year – and the harvest season fast-approaching, growers say they urgently need workers.

Last week, a group of mainly strawberry and kiwifruit growers wrote an open letter to Lees-Galloway saying they were desperate for workers.

“We can only assume that you are unaware that your failure to announce the cap will result in the horticulture businesses that harvest in October and November having to leave a large proportion of their crops rotting in the ground again, as happened last year, when you were late in announcing the cap.”

On Thursday, Lees-Galloway said the scheme as a whole would be undergoing a policy review.

There are tensions between employment of New Zealanders and overseas workers for these jobs, which are mainly in the regions – particularly Hawke’s Bay, the Bay of Plenty and Marlborough.

While unemployment is low, some of the regions that rely heavily on RSE workers have high rates of unemployment, especially youth unemployment.

There are also issues around the scheme putting pressure on accommodation, future workforce planning, and the exploitation of workers.

In the meantime, the Governemnt has agreed to increase the annual cap this year, by 1550 to take the total to 14,400.

Lees-Galloway also announced the cap for next year, which would see the number of RSE workers raised by a further 1600 to a total of 16,000.

This future cap is conditional on the industry proving it was making horticulture and viticulture more attractive to Kiwi workers. Part of that would include paying workers more and being more flexible regarding working arrangements.

The minister also told the industry to build accommodation for additional workers and take responsibility for its own supply chains, in order to stamp out exploitation.

It’s not what the industry wanted, but it has acknowledged it’s better than nothing, as harvest season fast approaches.

As the harvest looms, the growing horticulture and viticulture industries call for 3000 more seasonal workers, Iain Lees-Galloway has announced some reprieve in an additional 1500 RSE workers. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Horticulture New Zealand boss Mike Chapman said RSE workers played a key role in the industry’s continued growth, in response to rising export and domestic demand.

“This growth is why we asked the Government for an even greater increase in RSE worker numbers, to support our growth and make up for the shortage of available New Zealand workers, particularly during peak times like harvesting and pruning.”

As well as enabling the growth of fruit, vegetable and wine grape growing, it also enabled Pacific peoples to earn money they otherwise wouldn’t have. Last season, Pacific RSE workers earned more than $50 million.

The announcement comes hot on the heels of Lees-Galloway’s announcement of the new temporary work visa scheme, which also has a heavy focus on the regions.

But the Government is trying hard to temper the ability to import labour to the regions, with policies that encourage Kiwis into work in those areas, and better labour force planning outside the main centres.

The issue of the so-called “nephs on the couch” is constantly front-of-mind for the Labour-New Zealand First coalition Government, and just two minutes after the RSE announcement, Lees-Galloway, education minister Chris Hipkins and Employment Minister Willie Jackson launched consultation on the design of the 15 Regional Skills Leadership Groups.

The idea of these groups formed part of the vocational education reforms, and now the work to design the groups was underway, with an expected establishment date of mid-2020.

The groups were aimed at identifying workforce and skills needs in specific regions, then advising on actions to cultivate those skills.

They would include regional industry leaders, economic development agencies, worker representatives, iwi, and government organisations.

And they would develop regional workforce plans, which would ideally project labour supply needs and outline how to create better and more attractive jobs across the region.

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