A decision to allow 1600 more RSE workers into the country has been welcomed by fruit growers in Hawke's Bay who are in desperate need of more staff - although some growers say it is highly unlikely they will arrive in time for the current picking season.
The Government announced on Sunday that the cap for the number of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) scheme workers had been lifted from 14,400 workers to 16,000.
That means up to 16,000 workers from eligible Pacific nations can enter the country, between July and June of each year, to work in horticulture and viticulture.
Peak demand for the workers is generally between February and April - when apples, grapes and Kiwi fruit are picked - and roughly 30 to 40 per cent of workers are based out of Hawke's Bay during that peak time, Immigration NZ confirmed.
T&G Global director of operations Craig Betty said they welcomed the increase but it would likely not impact this apple picking season.
"The increase in the RSE cap is good news for the horticultural sector, with the scheme providing significant benefits to both our Pacific neighbours and the New Zealand economy," he said.
"With regards to the current 2021/22 apple harvest, given it's already underway, so it's unlikely additional RSE team members would arrive in time to help address potential workforce shortages this season."
Yummy Fruit Company owner Paul Paynter agreed. He said at best they would arrive in time for the end of the crucial apple picking season in just over a month.
"The 1600 extra RSE workers is great but the only problem is the peak of our harvest is probably in two weeks' time.
"I've told my guys to apply for some [more RSE workers] but I would say it will be a month before we can get them here, and that would be ambitious by historical standards," he said.
"The cavalry arriving late is better than not at all but it won't fundamentally change the equation [for us]."
He said prior to Covid, his orchards at the peak of the apple harvest were made up of about 150 Kiwi workers, 130 RSE workers and 130 backpackers/overseas travellers. He said those staffing numbers were well down this year, including with no backpackers available.
"Our company's [apple] crop is up 25 per cent on last year, and staff members are down currently 35 per cent," he said.
"Last year was a very bad year for us financially, and this year is the same but worse."
Tukituki MP Anna Lorck said the increased cap would help the industry.
"We have seen our growers making good progress in lifting wages ... as well as significant investment in more fit-for-purpose new RSE accommodation, which reduces pressure on the existing housing stock," she said.
"I am also strongly encouraging industry, larger growers and RSE contractors to look at ways they can also help smaller family growers in Hawke's Bay - who have traditionally relied on backpackers - so they too can also access the additional RSEs in these challenging times."
Immigration NZ's Steve McGill said there were about 9800 RSE workers currently in New Zealand.
"We cannot definitively say what percentage of RSE workers work in Hawke's Bay due to the peaks and troughs of seasonal work, as workers can work in multiple regions throughout the year.
"However, at the peak of the season approximately 30 to 40 per cent of RSE workers will be in Hawke's Bay."
He said there was no cap as such for each region.
NZ Apples and Pears trade police and strategy manager Gary Jones said about 4400 RSE workers were expected in Hawke's Bay over the coming weeks.
He said the number of RSE workers in the country this season was similar to pre-Covid levels.
Thornhill Horticultural Contracting Ltd, which provides housing for RSE workers on behalf of clients, general manager Nick Bibby said their facility at Angus Hotel in Hastings catered for over 400 RSE workers at a time.
"We have just built an extra 66 beds to go into our Angus Hotel accommodation," he said.
"We have plans for about another 130 there."