Imports grow industry

By Doug Laing

1 comment
Ataban Rongo, who became a regular RSE worker travelling from Vanuatu to work in Hawke's Bay. Photo / Glenn Taylor
Ataban Rongo, who became a regular RSE worker travelling from Vanuatu to work in Hawke's Bay. Photo / Glenn Taylor

Workers imported from Pacific islands to provide labour for the fruit harvest in New Zealand orchards have started heading home in an earlier-than-usual end to harvesting in the region.

But most will be back, according to Immigration New Zealand and employers are rapt with the success of the Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) scheme once feared as potentially robbing New Zealanders of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in wages.

Now, fruitgrowers who believe they might have gone under had it not been for the stability the offshore labour market has provided say there's confidence to invest, there will be more work for New Zealanders, and the industry is on track to achieve some of the heady goals set by its leaders.

The impetus has come from a scheme that allows up to 8000 workers to be sourced mainly from Pacific Islands to meet peak demands unable to be met from the domestic labour force.

It is not a problem unique to New Zealand: backpacking workers from overseas often tell employers of the difficulties their own countries have with finding seasonal workers in economies that still have unemployment problems.

Ministry figures provided to APN last month show 5970 RSE workers were in New Zealand on April 14, and of them 2793 were in Hawke's Bay.

Among the bigger employers is Hastings company Crasborn, which had more than 300 at the peak of the apple harvesting, about half having recently returned to their home countries. Some may move to other work in other regions.

Company RSE manager Ross Howard says the growth means other work is emerging for New Zealanders as the industry confidence grows, including supervisory roles and skilled operators such as tractor drivers.

"Without it we would be struggling and it's a good back-up while we're all pushing for more jobs for Kiwis as well," he says.

Taylor Corporation's Steve Anderson says: "The industry wouldn't survive now without it."

The industry needs large numbers of workers when harvesting needs to be done, and Anderson says: "It's assisted us to get stability. It has had a huge impact on us as a business, and it's given our industry some surety to plant again. All the big players have started."

Crasborn expects, on trends, to have about 85 per cent of this year's workers back next year, some of them with RSE histories dating back to when the scheme was introduced in 2007.

There is now a well-established cycle of support for themselves and their communities to the point where there is no shortage of takers for the opportunities.

"It's an eye-opener to see 500 queuing up in Vanuatu," says Howard.

It was also an eye-opener to see the use made of wages which, in one week in New Zealand, might be more than a month's in the islands.

He concedes the concept of providing work for the overseas labour force is still sometimes a "tense" subject and adds: "It was always going to be a bit hard. We'd love to say we could do 100 per cent Kiwi ... but it just doesn't work that way."

Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers president Leon Stallard says that apart from hail, which caused major damage in limited areas a week before Christmas, it's been a good season.

"We were worried about Cyclone Lusi, which could have left a lot of fruit on the ground right at the time of harvesting," he says. "But it was a bit of a fizzer."

The season was preceded by a drought and a mild winter, and there were no frosts to worry about.

The RSE scheme was introduced in 2007-08, allowing for temporary entry of overseas workers to work in New Zealand's horticulture and viticulture industries.

In 2011, it was reported that in the first four seasons, there had been 24,614 placements, involving 13,895 individuals, indicating more than half were return workers, most returning to work with previous season's employers.

In the 2013-14 season, the number of RSE positions approved for Hawke's Bay grew from 1508 in November to 3048 in March.

An immigration spokesman said an employer might not recruit the number approved each month due to the availability of local labour or a change in growing conditions, as happened this year.

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