Up to forty per cent of Hawke's Bay's apple crop would likely remain on trees to rot if no workers can come in from overseas to pick fruit this harvest season.
That's the dire prediction from growers who say a local workforce can't possibly meet the shortfall, no matter how much they offer to pay them to pick.
The region needs 10,000 seasonal workers to start work from next month, through until early next year when the fruit needs picking.
Last season those workers fell into three even-numbered categories; local workers, working holidaymakers and RSE workers.
However, Covid has decimated the available workforce from the second two groups.
Innovative solutions have already been pitched - onsite quarantining among them - but industry leaders say its time for action from local and central government.
Yummy Fruit general manager Paul Paynter told Hawke's Bay Today he felt that locals could potentially pick between 60 and 80 per cent of Hawke's Bay's fruit crop.
With horticulture contributing $715 million in GDP to the region's economy, the loss to the economy of that amount left on trees would sit between $100 to $200 million if that happened, he said.
"The last thing you wanna do is play Russian roulette hoping that labour is going to turn up at the last minute and everything is going to be ok, and end up losing $100 million here and $100 million there worth of foreign export receipts.
"If you're going to solve this problem, with the quantity of people you need, it's not going to happen quickly, you need a plan."
Paynter said discussions have been constructive to date, and Finance Minister Grant Robertson met with him and other industry representatives earlier this week.
New Zealand Apples and Pears Inc (NZAPI) chief executive Alan Pollard said Robertson had committed to providing some more certainty in the next two to three weeks.
Pollard said growers have a responsibility to do all they can to get New Zealanders into seasonal work.
He said his organisation was working with the Ministry of Social Development to create opportunities for the unemployed or to redeploy displaced workers; working with Corrections to employ day release prisoners; and working with tertiary institutions to mobilise the student population.
"But during the peak of harvest it will still not be enough and our industries will need more help," he said.
"We did not seek direct government assistance during the pandemic, but now the certainty of access to a reliable labour supply requires urgent government intervention, through policy changes to visa extensions and the return of workers from Pacific nations."
WHAT IF GROWERS PUT THEIR PAY RATES UP?
Paynter said the loss of working holidaymakers was even more crippling than the absence of RSE workers nationally.
There are currently just 22,000 of those visa holders in New Zealand, with 45,000 the norm come harvest time.
That number will reduce to 5000 by January as visas expire.
"And we're short about 10,000 RSEs that have gone home," Paynter said.
"That's a lot of labour."
Paynter said he was sceptical of the chances the gap could be filled by recruiting Hawke's Bay's unemployed, and they were recruiting from outside the region already.
He said while wages would certainly go up in order to lure those workers in, it would not be a complete solution:
"The biggest impediment to that isn't going to be money, the impediment is going to be accommodation."
Hawke's Bay's housing crisis has seen Paynter explore the possibility of having incoming workers board with local community groups.
According to a survey from New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers, the average hourly pay rate across 222 horticulture and viticulture firms that use RSE workers was $20.30.
"Our wages in our company have doubled in the last 10 years," Paynter said.
"You're going to see bin rates rise, they've probably risen a lot in the last two or three years anyway because labour has been tight."
STUDENTS COULD SAVE THE DAY
Student Job Search chief executive Suzanne Boyd said she felt Hawke's Bay's local student workforce could be better utilised to help resolve the shortage.
"The EIT students in the region are there for at least three years during their study, so that means there's approximately 10,000 students in the area for three years who seasonal employers can tap into," she said.
Boyd said 58% of students at EIT are over the age of 25 and a large number are available to work 20-30 hours a week.
There are also additional students in the Hawke's Bay that would normally be attending education providers in other regions that are now doing their study extramurally.
"Where before they were going to be looking at tourism and hospitality roles, those jobs are gone, so we know these students are looking for work," she said.
"This is a motivated group of people who are engaged in study to make themselves more employable and lift their own level of skill."
Boyd said she thinks this discussion should have been happening in March.
HOW TO GET THE UNEMPLOYED ON BOARD
Hawke's Bay Regional Commissioner for Social Development Annie Aranui said
it was engaging with councils, tertiary institutes, training providers and community groups to make them aware of the vacancies on offer and what support we can provide.
It was also promoting forklift driving and packhouse training.
With the support of MSD, businesses in Hawke's Bay are now joining forces to support local workers looking for sustainable long-term employment.
One recent example of this is the partnership between the apple market interests of T&G Global (Turners & Growers) and Ngai Tukairangi Trust (NTT)."
"The apple and kiwifruit sectors have seasonal labour peaks and quiet times that complement each other," Aranui said.
"We saw an opportunity through working relationships with both sectors, to work on employment options whereby staff could easily transfer from one employer to the other.
"Both companies share similar values concerning the wellbeing and retention of workers and employers were keen to explore innovative workforce solutions.
"This resulted in a three-way meeting to work collaboratively to meet the needs of staff and employers."
There are also opportunities for those who have lost their jobs due to Covid and people leaving short-term redeployment projects, Aranui said.
"Despite the increase in the number of people who are unemployed, it is also important to note that not everyone on a benefit would be able to take up physically demanding orchard work.
"Those who are unable to could also be connected with packhouse work and other seasonal occupations such as food processing."
STOPPING THE 'BIG MONEY-GO-ROUND' FROM GRINDING TO A HALT
The financial ramifications of any lost product will be significant.
Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst said over 8000 permanent jobs in and around the horticulture and viticulture sectors are at risk if the region were to sit still and let it happen.
"These permanent roles depend on the fruit being picked so it's vital we do everything we can to support the sectors," she said.
Paynter said there are indirect economic benefits from bringing workers to the region as well, with the vast majority of money earned by the seasonal workforce getting spent locally on accommodation and food.
"Even electronics stores, like Noel Leeming has record sales of Bluetooth speakers," he said.
According to Paynter, RSE workers often fill containers of locally purchased goods, especially hardware and building products to ship home to the islands.
"They do take some money home but they spend the vast majority of it here, as do the working holidaymakers," he said.
"All businesses are a big money-go-round, and we just have to make sure we maximise the amount of money that's going round."