Kiwifruit to go unpicked with shortage of backpackers, intl students

Rural Exchange 12/05/2018

The Bay of Plenty is still looking to fill over 1,200 vacancies for kiwifruit pickers and packers in the midst of peak harvest season.

The worker shortage was addressed last week by Government when the Ministry of Social Development’s issued a labour shortage declaration, which runs until June 8.

With around half of this season’s total crop yet to be harvested, some 20 percent more trays are expected to be picked and packed this season.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers CEO Nikki Johnson told Rural Exchange that the sector is largely missing backpackers and international students this season.

“Combined they would’ve made up 30 percent of our workforce in the past,” Ms Johnson said.  

She pointed out that some international schools in Te Puke region are no longer operating, causing a shortage of international students for the sector.

“So the students aren’t here in the region. We knew that but we didn’t know the extent to which that would cause us problems.

Photo: File.

“And that’s really been exacerbated by the fact that backpackers haven’t been coming in as well.”

Ms Johnson guesses that backpackers have more options as to where they can go to get jobs than in the past.

“[Backbackers have] got more choice and they’re tending to move along a bit faster, which means we can’t rely on them as much as we have in the past.”

She said orchard pay rates have gone up to make the jobs more competitive, which now sits at about $21 per hour. The labour shortage declaration issued last week has also helped the sector, though Ms Johnson said people still assume the industry only offers low-paying jobs.

The seasonal labour shortage declaration allows overseas visitors on visitor visas to apply to vary the conditions of their visas to get temporary kiwifruit work.

NZ Kiwifruit Growers is also working with Immigration NZ to fast-track the visa, which tourists can apply for and get approved in roughly 15 days.

If all goes well, potential kiwifruit pickers will get approved in 3-5 days.

Nevertheless, Ms Johnson told Rural Exchange that the sector will work closely with the Government to ensure better stability for future harvest seasons.

With production expected to continuously increase over the next five years, she emphasises the importance of addressing the industry’s workforce issues as a soon as possible.

“We intend to have a 10-year plan in place by the start of next season.”

Watch the full interview with Nikki Johnson above.

Rural Exchange with Hamish McKay, Sarah Perriam and Richard Loe, 5-7am Saturday and Sunday on RadioLIVE with Carter’s Tyre Service. Click here for all the ways to watch and listen.