By Alex Tarrant
If enough Kiwis are willing and able to work full harvesting seasons in New Zealand's horticulture sector, there will not be such a need to source up to 8,000 overseas workers a year for the work, an industry body says.
But employing motivated workers from the Pacific has allowed businesses in the sector to increase productivity and expand their operations, leading to the employment of more Kiwis in full-time positions. Kiwis were often not well placed to take on seasonal harvest work, meaning being able to employ workers from the Pacific had been a vital part in keeping businesses in the horticulture and viticulture sectors alive over recent years.
Interest.co.nz spoke to Horticulture New Zealand CEO Peter Silcock about the sector's employment of Pacific workers for harvesting work, why they were required, and what benefits they brought to the sector.
This was in light of comments made by political parties opposed to the government's welfare reform programme, which will put tougher requirements on beneficiaries to find work. This has opposition parties challenging the government on where jobs are going to come from for beneficiaries looking for work.
Prime Minister John Key has been defending his government's stance by pointing to the ANZ jobs report for January, which showed 30,000 positions available, while Work and Income received 1,300 to 1,500 vacancies a week, and had on average 3,500 jobs on offer.
And on Tuesday, Key raised the point that New Zealand's horticulture industry had to employ thousands of overseas workers a year for harvesting work as an example of an industry where there were job opportunities for Kiwis.
Although the majority of workers in the horticulture sector are New Zealanders, the sector's need to source extra labour for harvest seasons, which last for two to three months, has constantly raised questions of why New Zealanders are not sourced for the work.
Anecdotes abound from the industry that Kiwi harvest workers often lack the motivation and drive of those brought in from Pacific nations, who would use money earned from the work for a range of initiatives back home, such as paying for school fees, repairing community facilities or as capital to start up small businesses.
Up to 8,000 workers from overseas, mainly the Pacific, are allowed into New Zealand each year for up to seven months under Immigration New Zealand's Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, which was introducted in 2007. For its first year, the cap of the number of workers brought into New Zealand via the RSE scheme was set at 5,000, but this was increased to 8,000 to meet the expected increase in demand for labour to harvest projected bumper crops in both the horticulture and viticulture industries a couple of years ago.
On average, about 6-6,500 workers come per year through the RSE scheme, and the 8,000 cap has not yet been hit. In the year to June 30, 2011, 7,100 workers arrived under the scheme, according to figures provided by interest.co.nz by the Department of Labour.
Employers were signed up to receive RSE workers must show a committment to New Zealand workers first. About 140 employers were signed up to take part in the scheme.
The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions supported the scheme when it was introduced, saying labour shortage was a serious threat to business viability in the viticulture and horticultural sectors.
“If the RSE hadn’t happened some growers would have gone out of business, with consequences for New Zealand workers,” Peter Conway said in an overview of the scheme in late 2010.
And Horticulture New Zealand said the RSE programme was the single greatest improvement in the sector that Horticulture NZ had been involved in.
"The good supply of workers for harvesting has allowed growers to increase production and expand their businesses - buying more land and planting more trees. This has meant they can hire more Kiwis to work in permanent roles, for example supervising. It has also resulted in more employment opportunities in packing and freight - there have been very positive effects right through the supply-chain,” Horticulture NZ said in the 2010 overview.
Subsequent visas being granted to the same worker has been one of the key successes of the programme. “Being able to hire motivated workers who are already skilled is great for the growers,” Horticulture NZ said.
“There is still a ‘Kiwi-first’ approach to employment in the sector. Even though the economic climate is very different to when the policy was introduced, and unemployment rates have sharply increased, the Pacific seasonal workers are still needed, and the number of seasonal workers can be adjusted according to labour demands," it said.
Why can't Kiwis take the jobs?
Peter Silcock of Horticulture New Zealand told interest.co.nz that the majority of people working in the horticulture sector were Kiwis, with about 15% of the workforce consisting of RSE workers, who were mainly from Pacific nations.
Due to seasonal peaks in demand for labour, the sector needed to find people willing and able to harvest crops for the full timeframe of a harvest, which lasted two to three months. It had always been a real challenge to find these types of workers.
“What we find for instance with a lot of backpackers, is they want to do three or four weeks work, and then keep travelling. Then you have to train more people. For some of the Kiwi workers it’s like that as well," Silcock said.
“A lot of people traditionally come into this industry for specific reasons. For instance they might be university students on their holidays, or they might be parents of young families who want to earn a certain amount of money to do something – it might be to buy new school uniforms or go on a trip – and they might stop after they’ve done that,” he said.
The industry was looking for good, keen, reliable people who were going to do that work for the full season. If New Zealanders had those traits, there was certainly work available in the horticulture industry for them.
"From the industry’s point of view, if there were enough New Zealanders who were willing and able to do the work, and stayed for the season to do that, then there wouldn’t be so much of a requirement to hire the RSE workers," Silcock said.
If the government was to cut the amount of RSE workers allowed without insuring those New Zealand workers were there, it would have a big impact on the industry.
“Things are pretty tight right now. It’s not so much that without these workers stuff won’t get harvested, it’s around timing of harvest. If you harvest or prune at the optimum time, then you’ll get more productivity or you’ll get more shelf-life for your fruit," Silcock said.
“If you harvest at the wrong time, it costs you money. It’s not necessarily that the fruit’s left on the tree, it’s more the quality of that fruit will reduce,” he said.
Need to be in the right place
People needed to be in the right places for the work as well.
"If you’ve got a whole lot of unemployed people in Auckland, and we’ve got work in Bay of Penty, Hawkes Bay, Nelson and Otago, there’s obviously not a direct match-up there. There are definitely social issues around having people move away from their families and things like that," Silcock said.
“I know the Pacific Islanders are doing that, but they obviously do that voluntarily, and it’s an opportunity for them to earn some money and make things better for their community or their family,” he said.
The RSC scheme provided some certainty for employers who would know the workers were there for a certain period of time and were motivated to do the work.
“They see it as a huge opportunity to work. Some of the people coming from places like Tuvalu and Vanuatu might never have done paid work in the past at all, because they’re living on a subsistence lifestyle. Often they’ll come in community groups as well – they’ll be funding a new church or a new roof for their school between them,” Silcock said.
And it wasn't exactly easy or cheap to source workers through the RSE scheme either. Employers had to go through “quite a process” to get workers, and the number of workers they wanted, approved.
They had to pay half the airfare for RSE workers' travel to and from New Zealand, and were also responsible for accommodating the RSE workers, and providing medical care. Some employers offered accommodation to New Zealand employees as well, although there was often a different attitude amongst Kiwi workers who might prefer a more freedom from the rules for staying on a grower's property.
And RSE workers must be paid at the same rates New Zealand harvest workers would be on. Workers were paid in piece rates - per unit of output. If a worker earned less per hour than the equivalent of the minimum wage, the employer would top up their pay to the minimum wage.
"The good thing about piece rates is that if you’re willing to put the effort in, you can earn more money. We’ve got workers in the industry working on piece rates who are earning well above the minimum wage on those piece rates," Silcock said.
Studies on RSE workers showed they were earning between NZ$15 and NZ$17 an hour on average.