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Pacific, New Zealand need a plan for fruit picking season

New Zealand Apples and Pears Inc. want the region to think strategically about the future of fruit exports before clamping down on seasonal workers in the wake of COVID-19, as Samoan workers rush home with no clear plan on how they might return in the spring.

In an interview with the Samoa Observer, spokesperson Gary Jones said he is concerned New Zealand does not yet have a plan in place to deal with labour shortages in a high demand industry that will be essential to the region’s economic recovery.

He said the industry has begun talking to the New Zealand Government about allowing recognised seasonal employers (R.S.E.’s.) to hold managed quarantine in their accommodation facilities for returning seasonal workers as soon as this October, including dealing with their testing and managing isolation.

“[This industry] is so essential for the Pacific in terms of those remittances, and if industry doesn’t get workers from the Pacific, even with increased unemployment in New Zealand there is no chance we will be able to meet the demand for seasonal workers from the New Zealand population,” Mr. Jones said. 

The apple and pear industry employs over half of the seasonal workers that come to New Zealand under the R.S.E. scheme, and it is growing by the year. Now is not the time to drop the number of overseas labour imports, the Business Development Manager said.

His comments come in the wake of Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announcing a hold on the planned increase of 1,600 people to the seasonal worker cap, with a decision to keep the figure at 14,400.

Mr. Lees-Galloway says this move is to ensure recently unemployed locals can have the opportunity to find work on the orchards. But Apples and Pears Inc doesn’t see that happening.

The work is intensely laborious, especially in the apple sector with majority of the work taking place up and down ladders. Currently New Zealander’s have not shown an appetite for this work: 79 per cent of pickers are migrant workers while 79 per cent of the pack-house staff is local. 

“The extra load is that to pick a hectare of apples you have to pick 60 tonne of apples on average. To do that you have to climb a 2.4 metre ladder multiple times.

“The key number is you have to climb somewhere between 20 to 25 vertical kilometres – three times Mount Everest from sea level carrying 60 tonnes of apples. And an average picker will pick over a hectare, 74.1 tonnes in a season.

“Getting unemployed New Zealanders, who may have been working in hospitality or wherever who are now looking for full time jobs and asking them to do a 12 week picking job in the Hawke’s Bay, it’s not easy to get any large number of workers into that role. 

Relying on New Zealand’s economy to “tank so badly” that locals are desperate enough to take to the fields is not a solid plan for the industry’s future, he argued.

“We need to be planning for this and that is clearly not acceptable to be thinking that is a solution, that’s a joke of a solution.

“Our countries and our governments must think more strategically in this space.”

Around 900 Samoan workers will have returned home from their unlucky season in New Zealand by the end of the month, which much of their savings spent on surviving lockdown. They, and their employers, are hoping to be reunited next season and Mr. Jones wants to see a plan to get them there.

He said Pacific Island governments ought to be concerned about ensuring a flow of labour exports can continue to reach New Zealand.

“The growth in the New Zealand apple industry directly impacts the economy of Samoa and of the Pacific Islands,” Mr. Jones said.

“Our prosperity is your prosperity and our workforce is your workforce. Samoa needs to be very concerned as New Zealand starts to restrain the supply of labour from the Pacific.”

There is some optimism that the industry will not have to take on all the responsibilities of managing quarantine, testing and isolation for seasonal workers if a proposed Pacific travel bubble goes ahead.

This week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed talks are underway to open travel corridors with no quarantine requirements to its realm countries the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, with an idea that it could be happening by September.

But if a Pacific bubble between the other labour exporting Pacific Islands countries and New Zealand will not happen, then the leadership needs to prepare early to ensure the horticulture industry is not left in the lurch with bulging orchards and not enough labour.

“As you can image the officials in New Zealand have a lot on and a lot of priorities being juggled,” Mr. Jones said.

“As industry we are asking them to prioritise this.”

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