Another record-breaking kiwifruit harvest is expected this season but a crippling labour shortage combined with Omicron concerns have put growers, major packhouses and contractors on edge.
About 24,000 seasonal workers would be required to pick and pack the crop nationally and New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc has forecast there could be a shortfall of 6,500 people. The Bay of Plenty needed 20,000 of those workers as it was the largest kiwifruit producing region.
Major packhouse leaders spoken to by NZME are in recruitment mode for Kiwis and were reliant on getting their full contingent of Recognised Seasonal Employer staff into the country as soon as possible.
Most were paying the living wage of $22.75 per hour or more as the start rate, with another $2 an hour for night shifts and eight per cent holiday pay.
Good pickers could earn up to $38 an hour and other skilled harvesting roles were paying $40 an hour.
EastPack chief executive Hamish Simson said it needed about 3000 seasonal workers, slightly fewer than last year, as the company was trying to maximise labour efficiency around automation by packing larger trays.
''We haven't filled our books yet so we are still recruiting pretty hard but I think we will get there.
''I started feeling pretty confident about a week ago that we will get the workers.''
He said red kiwifruit packing had started at two sites and EastPack had already bought 10,000 RAT tests.
It was working at the maximum alert level for Covid, with every safety precaution in place.
''The first thing we want to do is keep our people safe and do the best we can to minimise the impact of Omicron on our workforce.''
EastPack was looking at packing 48 million trays this season compared to 47 million trays last season.
Seeka chief executive Michael Franks said it was looking to recruit 3200 seasonal workers and it was about halfway with Kiwis and had a contingent of RSE staff to help fill gaps.
''We still require people in all the regions we operate in.''
Franks said accommodation for workers was an issue and Seeka was keen to hear from any accommodation facilities that had vacancies.
Strict Covid procedures were in place at all its sites and it had also purchased RAT tests.
Last season Seeka packed 36 million trays but this season it was likely to be 48 million to 50 million trays.
Trevelyan Pack & Cool managing director James Trevelyan said it needed more than 1400 seasonal workers.
He said the family-owned company offered many incentives for workers. These included transport, accommodation, regular training and opportunities to upskill and do Primary ITO National Certificate in Horticulture post-harvest qualifications, alongside other courses.
Trevelyan said there was the potential for workers to test positive for Covid. The company continued to follow government guidelines and embraced enhanced safety protocols and hygiene measures to mitigate the risk of transmission among workers.
It was using PPE, protective screens, observing social distancing, and undertaking regular health and temperature checks and RAT testing.
Last season Trevelyan packed 18.2 million trays and it estimated 18.4 million trays would be packed this year.
Apata Group managing director Stuart Weston said it would have 700 seasonal jobs available compared to about 650 last year and it was introducing a new night shift at its Te Puke site.
The company had also established a flexi-time portal that workers could click into and specify the days and number of hours they wanted.
''We'll just work around them and mix and match according to them. It is in play and we have people using that already.
''This is just part of an ongoing evolution because nowadays we have realised some of the workforce wants more flexibility and we are receiving some really good feedback on that.''
Weston said recruitment had been a bit slower than last year but was starting to gather momentum and there were still jobs to be had.
''We are very culture-conscious and have various prizes we award over the course of the season. There are referral rewards for people who refer friends or family.''
Apata had also come up with different scenarios for Covid, had secured RAT testing and was used to operating at the highest biosecurity levels.
Weston said he roughly estimated this season it would pack 16 million trays of kiwifruit compared to 15 million last season.
DMS Progrowers chief executive officer Derek Masters said it had more than 700 jobs with shift length options.
''The shifts this year have been changed to accommodate more students and/or part-time short-shift options for those that don't want full shifts. Full shift options are also available.''
About 30 per cent of roles had been filled.
He said weekly prizes and incentives were presented to those ''that turn up and do the mahi over the harvest season''.
Masters said it had thousands of RAT tests.
High-risk roles that had movement around packhouses or orchards would be provided with regular RAT testing while workplace bubbles were in place with the usual sanitisation and distancing protocols.
DMS packed more than 14 million trays last season, and this was expected to jump to nearly 17 million trays this year.
''DMS will be turning on its new Te Puke packhouse - Rimu Shed -in time to cope with the increase in fruit volumes this season.''
In the past five years, it had pumped about $60m into operations.
Luciano Garcia, managing director of Papamoa-based Garcia Contracting, said ideally he would like to employ 450 people, however ''this is not realistic because we are in this Covid environment''.
During the harvest, Garcia said he did not need experienced people to pick kiwifruit.
''You don't need any experience, just a good intention and physical capability as we can teach them.''
A fast picker, in a good team, could earn $36 per hour.
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Colin Bond said the harvest would ramp up in mid-month and it was in its fourth year of a labour attraction campaign with the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry for Primary Industries.
NZKGI was encouraging New Zealanders who are now able to come back to New Zealand, quarantine free, ''to roll up their sleeves and help pick and pack our iconic kiwiana in this year's kiwifruit harvest from mid-March''.
Ministry for Social Development Bay of Plenty regional commissioner Mike Bryant said last season 2290 people from the Bay of Plenty gained work in the kiwifruit sector.
"We've had some positive feedback from those who have given it a go. This is an increase of 30 per cent from the previous season."
MSD was in the process of contacting jobseekers through the use of technology to promote and encourage people into seasonal work or other work opportunities.
He said MSD recognised not all jobseekers were suitable for kiwifruit work because it can be a physical job with, at times, long hours.
''But not all kiwifruit jobs involve picking, packing or stacking, and there are many options – from forklift operation to administration – so if someone is not able to do to physical work, there could be opportunities and career options in other roles.''
Want a kiwifruit job?
• NZKGI strongly encourages those interested in working over harvest to find information on job opportunities on www.NZKGI.org.nz or on the Facebook page KiwifruitJobsNZ