Bay orchardists and pack house operators are managing this year's bumper kiwifruit harvest with fewer employees than needed.
A 1200-person labour shortage declared by Government last week – the first in more than a decade – is designed to make it easier to recruit more workers. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken asked people in the industry whether the declaration is having an effect, and learned why the worker deficit is expected to get worse.
Packhouse Number Three at Trevelyan's in Te Puke is thrumming with activity. Conveyors with row after row of tidy, uniform kiwifruit make a ticking sound as they roll past hair-netted staff whose roles include examining fruit for blemishes, packaging and auditing each step of the process. Employees stand beside benches, pulling boxes of Gold which are wrapped, sealed and pushed to the end of the line. Video monitors display key indicators such as volume, quality and cost per tray.
Human resource manager Jodi Johnstone says the operation is quieter than normal, thanks to a dumping of rain the past week. A total of 131 people are working in one of four packhouses, processing fruit from throughout the Bay of Plenty as well as some from Hawke's Bay.
Johnstone brings us into an area tented in clear plastic where a trial is running to gauge the impact of controlling the atmosphere on Gold fruit, which is at the end of its season. It's cooler inside the tent, though not refrigerator cold.
"The fruit comes up here along the riser, there's brushes along here that give it a quick dust down before it comes up along the 'A' belt…" explains Johnstone. Kiwifruit goes from bin to belt and onto grading tables, where it's marked class 1, class 2, or reject.
"They do a 600 fruit check every 10 minutes, so it shows if you're in grade, or not. We're in grade at the moment so it looks like it's really good fruit." A machine will weigh and size the fruit before it's labelled.
Around 1600 people are on Trevelyan's books, but Johnstone says some of them probably left after four rainy days without work.
"We would've lost a few backpackers." The company is still recruiting, though Johnstone didn't have exact figures of how many more workers are needed.
Causes and Fixes
Business directors and industry groups say the labour shortage in the kiwifruit sector is the worst in years. They note backpackers and international students, especially, are missing this season. Seeka marketing and communications manager Kim McFadden says she's seen a marked decline in travelling labourers.
"It is prevalent in areas like the Coromandel where we are tight for labour and normally would have abundant seasonal back packers. We do not understand why we are short of these workers."
Seeka chief executive Michael Franks last week said some night shifts had been cancelled and one machine was down because of too few staff.
McFadden says the company is short about 300 workers, and is running large-scale recruitment drives, plus working with the Ministry of Social Development to bring in unemployed workers from the regions, something she says has worked well.
"We are advertising. We are paying more. We are using social media." She says Seeka is also using its compliance team to ensure all workers- directly and indirectly employed - are compliant, paid according to law and eligible to work in New Zealand.
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated (NZKGI) chief Nikki Johnson says pickers can expect to be paid around $21 an hour, which is more than in previous years. Orchard operations we surveyed paid a range from minimum wage ($16.50/hour) for starting workers, to nearly $40/hour for the most experienced seasonal staff. Experts say historically, pay for seasonal employees has risen in tandem with the minimum wage, since most starting jobs begin at the baseline rate (see table).
FIRST Union last week issued a press release saying it's concerned the government's labour shortage declaration will increase known exploitation in the kiwifruit industry.
"Just last year a government investigation found more than half of Bay of Plenty's kiwifruit audited employers failed to meet the bare minimum of basic employment standards."
The government's action makes it easier for overseas people on visitor's visas to come work in the Bay of Plenty. None of the industry managers we spoke with knew of workers who'd received a variation of conditions for their visa as a result of the declaration.
Ministry of Social Development regional commissioner Mike Bryant said the ministry has already placed 1000 people in kiwifruit jobs between January and April. He estimated another 80 to 100 would come through Work and Income. But it's still not enough to fill 1200 vacancies.
Bryant says factors leading to the labour shortage include a strong kiwifruit season, decrease in international students, the industry bouncing back from PSA disease and relatively low unemployment rate (Statistics NZ figures showed unemployment fell to 4.4 per cent in the three months to March 31. Unemployment has not been that low since the end of 2008).
Apata managing director Stuart Weston says publicity surrounding the labour shortage has helped attract staff.
"It's stimulated a lot more inquiries. I walked through one of the packhouses and bumped into one of the old workers we had years ago – he's 82 years old. He said, 'I saw your ugly mug on the telly, and I thought I'd give you a hand.' It's been really heart-warming and encouraging, the response we've had."
Seasonal Employment Barriers
Priority One's Annie Hill told the Bay of Plenty Times last week the housing market also has a considerable impact on the labour shortage.
"If those on minimum wage are taking home $540 a week and housing costs are $350-$400 a week, that doesn't leave much for other living expenses."
Local operations offer cheaper on-site accommodation (around $120 per week in a house, or $60 per person at a campsite), but lodging is full near packhouses such as Apata, according to Weston.
"We've had inquiries from out-of-town people, not a huge amount, but people are saying, 'I can move, is there any accommodation?' And at the last minute, no, we don't. That's been a pity. We even have people coming from as far as Hamilton, coming across to work."
Transportation is an issue, too. Franks and Weston say they've been sending minivans to nearby towns – Rotorua, Whakatāne, Tokoroa and Murupara –to pick up workers. Trevelyan's provides a daily bus from Te Puke, three daily vans from Kawerau and has buses available for its RSE teams.
But some job seekers say they've run into brick walls trying to track down transport. Whakatāne's Makere Rolleston says she phoned several packhouses but couldn't find anyone sending a van to her town.
"My family and I were wondering if there even was a genuine attempt to do transport in the wider Bay of Plenty to find local workers or was it the industry's excuse to justify the need of importing foreign help."
Rolleston says she's given up trying to get a job in the region and plans to move to Australia in about a month.
Apata's Weston told Radio New Zealand last week the industry has maxed out on willing local workers, and paying staff more won't make a difference. He says about 60 per cent of staff are local, with the rest made up of workers from the Pacific Islands and backpackers.
"We think that we've reached the very limits of what's available ready and willing to work, irrespective of the money. And that's evidenced by the fact that already [Work and Income New Zealand] have a system of stand down if people choose not to work in our sheds and inexplicably people will choose to go hungry rather than work in a packhouse."
Weston told Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the ideological debate about getting people off the benefit into seasonal kiwifruit work is one-dimensional.
"We've got 120,000 unemployed people that we're paying to sit at home...We go from zero to 100 miles an hour overnight and so to bring somebody who hasn't been working for a long time, throwing them into a packhouse…it actually puts them off work because it's really, really hard work. And the attrition rate of those people is very, very high because they just can't handle it."
Instead, Weston says Government should allow industry to recruit enough overseas workers so orchardists and packhouse owners can grow their businesses. Employers could then create more full-time jobs that would provide a pathway for unemployed people transitioning into the workforce.
"Kiwifruit packhouses are a very, very poor transition for anyone that's out of work to try to get back into work." Weston says the first choice for any Kiwi seeking a job is full-time employment, not seasonal work.
"We could say, look, we've got a job for 10 weeks, but between now and then if they find anything else better, of course they should take it."
The Government's Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme allows the horticulture and viticulture industries to recruit workers from overseas for seasonal work when there are not enough New Zealand workers. The programme caps RSE places each year. Immigration New Zealand reports the cap started at 5000 in 2007 and was increased to 11,100 in December 2017.
Langi Fatanitavake from Tonga is one of the team leaders at Trevelyan's. For the past 11 years, he's spent six months working the apple crop in Hawke's Bay under the RSE programme. Trevelyan's asked his other employer, Mr Apple, if they'd send a crew north for five or six weeks when apple season finished.
This is Fatanitavake's first year working kiwifruit. He says he sends home $500 each week for his wife and child, and makes enough money in New Zealand in seven months to last all year.
"In Tonga, it's very hard, the work in Tonga. I like to help my family and my team. It's a better job and I'm very happy and enjoy the job and the boys is coming to work and the boys are very happy to be here."
Trevelyan's had employees from 42 countries last year, and expects similar numbers this year.
Other seasonal workers use Working Holiday visas. Adam Laciga arrived in New Zealand with his girlfriend from the Czech Republic last February. They started picking kiwifruit, then headed south for cherries and nectarines before returning to Te Puke.
"My friend was here three years ago, so he told me about this place. The people are really nice, they're so friendly, and the job is not too hard, like picking cherries. Kiwifruit is okay."
The 25 year old says the money's good, too – enough for accommodation, food and extras like bungy jumping.
"I can still save some money for travelling."
Federico Torri arrived in New Zealand a week ago from Italy, where he works for Zespri. The 26 year old says his employer suggested Kiwi work experience would help his English language skills and give him more industry experience.
"I have met new people, have learn new way to work because the quality in New Zealand is very high. In Italy, the aspect of the quality we have to improve." Torri plans to stay two months.
Laciga and Torri are part of the workforce expected to pack 15 million trays at Trevelyan's this year, 6.7 million Gold and 8.3 million Green.
Healthy Prices, Rising Costs
While prices growers command for kiwifruit have grown the past five years, so have costs, according to figures from Zespri. It reports average per-hectare return for Green and Gold fruit was $51,153 during the 2012/13 season; $49,385 for 2013/14; $57,369 for 2014/15; $60,758 for 2015/16; and $68,868 for 2016/17. Figures for 2017/18 are scheduled for release 22 May.
Zespri senior communications advisor Rachel Lynch says on-orchard costs have increased for things like pruning, thinning, chemicals, pollination, irrigation and harvest. She says costs for Green over the period from 2012/13 to 2016/17 have risen 41 per cent, from $22,600 to $31,916. For Gold, costs have increased 16 per cent, from $31,600 to $36,657 over that time. Lynch says escalating expenses reflect improved practices across the industry, initially driven by introduction of PSA.
"However, as yields have increased markedly across the industry, the management required on-orchard has also increased."
Facing the Future
Zespri was not expecting this year's labour situation to affect the season or delay fruit reaching markets as planned. It predicts kiwifruit's contribution to the region's GDP will increase 135 per cent by 2030 to $2.04b, requiring 14,329 more workers.
Apata's Stuart Weston says the company is employing around 250 RSEs, one-quarter of its total workforce of 1000.
"However, we're going to need significantly more than that in the future as volumes grow." Weston says the business requires a "big chunk of people" to fly in to help with the seasonal peak for a few weeks, then fly home.
"And that provides us with a stable base that we can grow the business and all the other full-time jobs that emanate from a more stable industry."
Kiwifruit in the Bay
*85 per cent of New Zealand's kiwifruit grown in region
*Contributes $867m to region's GDP
*10800 FTE jobs in 2015/16
*Crop expected to increase 20 per cent to 142 million trays in 2018
*1200 more workers needed
*Labour shortage declaration from May 7 to June 8.
New Industry for Older Workers
Craig and Robyn Whiteside of Tauranga are part of the seasonal worker contingent kiwifruit operations are trying to attract. The couple are spending their third season working at Trevelyan's, living onsite in their 7m caravan. The business allows motorhome and fifth wheel associations to host Christmas parties on-site, which is how the Whitesides arrived. Craig says he was an indoor bowls coach when he learned about opportunities in kiwifruit in Te Puke.
"I was doing coaching for nine months and we wanted seasonal work for three months, so we decided we liked the look of the place and came here." He says the motor camp is one of the best working camps in the country.
Apata also has a motor camp through an affiliate packhouse. Weston says the business is seeking to provide more facilities for the campervan set that follows the fruit trail.
"It's a finite number, but we'll try anything to make it easy to come and work for us."
The Whitesides have a home in Tauranga, but have only lived there five weeks the past year. They mostly travel, doing seasonal work like pine tree planting and cherry picking. At Trevelyan's, Craig drives a forklift and Robyn does quality control. She's retired and gets superannuation; he doesn't.
Robyn says she works from a desire to keep busy, rather than need of a paycheque.
"It's so good to meet all the other nationalities. We have a wonderful time." Her only regret is not starting sooner.
"I wish actually we'd gone into the horticultural side of it earlier, because there's so much to learn. It's a really interesting industry…and you can do as much work as you want or as little work as you want."
The couple use seasonal work income for extras, a common thread among mature workers they meet around the country. Craig says it's a good lifestyle.
"It's their play money and they can afford overseas trips and different things they can do with their extra money." One thing the couple would like to see in the kiwifruit industry is more Kiwis.
"We find a large portion of the people we work with are international visa holders. We would love to see more New Zealanders doing this."
*The writer is personally acquainted with the Trevelyan family