A severe shortage of workers to harvest fruit has now become a plentiful supply, but the horticulture industry insists it is putting jobless New Zealanders first.

The industry which has faced the prospect of fruit rotting on trees because of labour shortages is now having to turn away some prospective casual workers away.

"This year, so far anyway, there are plenty of workers," said Horticulture New Zealand spokeswoman Leigh Catley.

"Thanks to international unemployment rates, the increasing attractiveness of New Zealand as a working holiday destination and the retraction of casual employment in our own hospitality and tourism sectors, we have the people we need, when we need them."

Ms Catley said some reports had given the impressionthe industry did not need New Zealanders because it had plenty of overseas workers to choose from. But this was wrong.

"Growers will always take Kiwis first, if they are committed to working and have the ability to do the job."

While there was a steady demand for jobs from thousands of visitors to New Zealand on the Working Holiday Scheme, most had no interest in fruit-picking or associated work.

Horticulture NZ chief executive Peter Silcock said they wanted to work in the main centres, in cafes and bars. "That appeals to a young person on holiday more than fruit-picking, packing or thinning vines."

Seasonal Solutions supplies workers to harvest summer fruit in Central Otago, and says it is having no trouble finding people.

More New Zealanders were looking for work than in previous years and they were given priority, said general manager Craig Howard.

But with only about 10,000 people living the region, and only about 85 registered unemployed, employers had to turn to visitors.

"It takes 3000 people to pick, pack and ship a cherry crop out of here. We can't do that with locals. So we always have relied on other New Zealanders who are travelling around ... and then the [foreign] workers and backpackers."

In the Bay of Plenty, the kiwifruit harvest begins in mid-March and demand for jobs is expected to be high.

Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Mike Chapman said fewer foreign workers were needed as more New Zealanders showed an interest.


* New Zealand's horticulture exports have grown from $100 million in 1980 to $2.2 billion in 2008.
* The horticulture crops are grown over a total area of 90,000ha.
* Including domestic sales, the horticulture industry is valued at $5 billion and employs 50,000 people in eight key growing regions.

Source: hortnz.co.nz