A kiwifruit industry leader fears crops being left on vines as a 3800-person peak harvest season worker shortage looms.

While the volume of fruit to be picked is about the same as last years, a bumper gold kiwifruit crop has added pressure and contributed to a predicted peak shortage twice as large as last year's.

The Ministry of Social Development yesterday declared a six-week labour shortage in the Bay of Plenty from April 15 to May 27 as a "last resort" to attract workers.

The 1400 current vacancies were expected to increase to 3800 by mid-April. The peak harvest shortfall in 2018 was 1200.

Advertisement

The declaration allows anyone in the region on a visitor visa to apply to work in the local kiwifruit industry for up to six weeks.

The shortage - declared in advance of its start and earlier than last year - comes in spite of a big and early push by the local industry this year to attract people to its jobs.

So far this year the ministry has placed 500 people in jobs in the industry, half as many as in the same period last year.

The ministry's regional commissioner, Mike Bryant, said that for the first time ever the gold kiwifruit crop, which had a shorter timeframe to be picked, was larger than the green.

Increased planting, especially of gold kiwifruit, and the dry weather had contributed to a spike in demand for workers, he said.

Declaring the shortage in advance would give people more time to get their visas sorted and travel to the Bay.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson said labour was needed equally in both the picking and packing of the kiwifruit. Photo / Andrew Warner
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson said labour was needed equally in both the picking and packing of the kiwifruit. Photo / Andrew Warner

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson said the proportion of gold fruit was up 12 per cent.

A lower employment rate was also a factor in this year's shortage being larger than last year's.

Advertisement

She said labour was needed equally across picking and packing roles.

Packhouses paid anywhere from $17.70 an hour for an unskilled packing role to $38 an hour for experienced workers, while the expected picking rate this year, based on a survey of contractors, was $23.50.

She said the shortage declaration last year attracted enough workers to harvest all kiwifruit for export.

The organisation's chairman, Doug Brown, however, said the season was not without losses for the industry and not all fruit was picked at optimal times.

He said this year's shortage was a major concern and he did not want to see "any crops left on vines".

Seeka chief executive Michael Franks said many companies in the industry had suffered a huge drop off in seasonal staff.

The reality was that the demand for labour was far beyond what the market could currently offer. Workers had to do long hours just to get the job done, he said.

He said the company was happy the shortage had been recognised.

Although the yield was down, he said, there were more productive hectares. Extra gold kiwifruit put more pressure on the peak season.

He said the last shortage put a packing machine out of action for the whole season and although this was not the case yet, it was a worry.

Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller, a former Zespri general manager, welcomed the shortage declaration after recently calling for the Government to hurry up and not wait as late as last year.

He strongly encouraged people to get into the industry.

Muller said he knew many people who started working in kiwifruit with no life skills and had applied themselves and worked their way into well-paid careers.

Stan Gregec from the Tauranga Chamber of Commerce said the kiwifruit industry had made great strides to make conditions and pay more attractive for those who were willing and able to work.

A University of Waikato report forecasted the kiwifruit industry contribution to the Bay's GDP will increase 135 per cent by 2030 to $2.04 billion and require 14,329 new kiwifruit jobs.

Kiwifruit pay rates

Forecast 2019 picking rate - $23.50

Unskilled packhouse rate - $17.70

Highly skilled packhouse rate - Up to $38 per hour.

- Additional reporting Zoe Hunter