It's time to call New Zealand's experiment in reduced foreign labour this harvest season a failure.
One of the country's largest berry farmers has abandoned growing after a season of chronic labour shortage. Apple growers say they're so shorthanded that exports will drop some 14 per cent this year, a loss of $95-$100 million. The grape harvest has come off with the help of more machinery, a tradeoff that's likely to result in less premium wine. And growers estimate they're still 1400 hires shy of the 4000 workers needed for grape cane pruning in Marlborough next month, the country's most valuable wine region.
Perhaps the Government's original idea sounded good in theory: redeploy the rump of seasonal foreign workers who remained stranded in New Zealand from the previous season, update working conditions for the few remaining backpackers, and make up the rest of the workforce from local Kiwis.
But if you add a few numbers, that calculation was always heroic. The need for seasonal hands through New Zealand's harvest and pruning work approaches 40,000 in the peak summer and early autumn months. Before Covid, Immigration NZ anticipated that 14,500 Pacific workers under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme and some 50,000 backpackers with working holiday visas would help to make up the labour force. But New Zealand's closed border changed that.
When spring harvest began last September, an estimated 6500 RSE workers from the previous season remained in the country, and about 14,000 backpackers. For the local population, there had been some considerable job loss following level 3 and level 4 lockdowns, but those thrown out of work were cushioned by extraordinary help, including the $495 a week Covid-19 income relief payment. There were extra government funds to help persuade Kiwis to take up more seasonal work, and pay is higher this year, typically over $22 an hour. But it was never clear that thousands of out-of-work Kiwis from the hard-hit hospitality and tourism sectors would uproot and move around the country following field work.
The Government's thinking, always wishful, proved demonstrably inadequate as soon as spring picking began. As the early season got under way in September and October growers, from strawberry to vegetable farmers, warned volubly of "fruit rotting on the ground", either because they couldn't find enough field hands, or because the productivity of Kiwis unused to the repetitive, outdoor labour was so low.
If the picture was bad in the early season, it was clear that it would get much worse when the major crops, like apples, came to be picked in the new year.
The Government was caught flat-footed. For months it had steadfastly refused to sign off on visas for any new foreign workers. And it had bluntly stymied the many overtures from the horticultural sector to manage its own isolation of such workers, a reasonable and low health risk proposition since those workers originate in Pacific Islands where there has been close to zero Covid-19.
Groups like NZ Apples and Pears had been talking to officials since at least July of last year about the prospect of using their own facilities to manage isolation for new foreign workers.
Their aim was to bring in the 5000 to 10,000 workers they thought were needed, without adding further strain on the Government's logjammed managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities.
One proposal was to isolate workers in bubbles at the Angus Inn, a refurbished hotel in Hastings owned by horticulture contracting company Thornhill.
The Angus wasn't the only such proposal but it seemed like an obvious fit. It could accommodate up to 350 people at a time, depending on permissible bubble sizes. It was used through level 4 lockdown to house some 300 horticultural workers (25 discrete bubbles with 12 workers in each), and passed MPI's strict hygiene and distancing rules for essential workers.
Foreign workers could isolate at the facility when they arrived in New Zealand and again before they returned to the islands, rotating through in two-week shifts, the industry plan suggested.
The mayors of Napier and Hastings promoted the idea. Hawkes Bay DHB wrote a favourable report on the facility's suitability. The report even suggested that the greatest risk of Covid from RSE workers hailing from the Pacific was their "entry at Auckland and coming in contact with border-facing staff who also see arrivals from around the world as well as transiting to Hawke's Bay...".
In terms of risk, it was a very promising assessment. Surely a border entry point other than Auckland and safe transit could be arranged easily. The plan went to Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi and to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. All the while reports of labour shortages from across the horticulture sector grew more urgent.
Eventually, on November 27th, the Government took a half measure. Up to 2000 new RSEs were approved, beginning in 2021, thousands shy of the numbers needed, and there was no flexibility on managed isolation. The dire lack of MIQ spots was in turn held up by ministers as a rationale for keeping the numbers so shy of demand.
It was too little, too late and the consequences of that decision are still weighing on the horticulture and wine sectors, whose exports, at $6.5 billion, are among New Zealand's most valuable. The episode has also exposed a second chronic shortage, this one in Government, where there is an urgent need for fresh thinking.