Grower and exporter John Bostock said his company was "heading in the direction" of the Living Wage for all employees and undergoing a "massive" pay round. Photo Patrick O'Sullivan Bostock.JPG
Backpacker Anna Yardley said she earned close to minimum wage picking blueberries, leaving after a few days to work in an office. Photo Patrick O'Sullivan YARDLEY.JPG
In this Local Focus documentary, video-journalist Patrick O'Sullivan talks to growers and workers to find out if wages really are good enough, and whether the RSE scheme has helped suppress pay rates for this vital export industry
Wages are rising in Hawke's Bay horticulture as growers feel the pressure of fewer RSE workers this year due to Covid restrictions.
Workers from the Recognised Seasonal Employers scheme are highly valued and bonded to a single employer.
Some RSE workers are still here from the previous season and the Government has agreed to allow 2000 more, but there are extra costs, such as paying them the Living Wage.
Growers need even more for the apple harvest, starting February, especially because most apple trees are picked three times for optimum quality.
New Zealand Apples & Pears business development manager Gary Jones said 8000 pickers were needed for the coming harvest.
"We've got half the RSEs and there is no indication of how many working holiday people might turn up."
While nobody disputes that RSE workers do a good job, there is evidence their increasing presence has suppressed demand along with pay rates for locals.
T&G Global East Coast Supply and Services Maurice Windle said his company's minimum piece-rate, for apple pickers paid on productivity, was $36 a bin. Last year it was $32, a 12.5 per cent increase.
"It always changes - that depends how hard it is.
"That's a minimum, so our managers and staff can't pay below that."
Permanent horticultural worker Fai Momoisea said pay rates were "pretty good" but depended on piece rates set by managers and owners.
"It depends on the weather, it depends on the grower – how much they want to pay for your work.
"If you do as much tree as you can in a day you can pretty much easily earn $200 or more."
Her colleague, Zhafri Rahman, said $300 a day was "pretty normal" if people had "the right motivation".
These totals might be impressive compared to the Living Wage of $177 for an eight-hour day.
But such higher daily amounts are piece-rates, with better pay for faster workers, and sometimes paid for days that are longer than eight hours.
In contrast to casual seasonal work, the Living Wage applies to continuous work with job security, not casual work that is weather dependent and without sick pay.
But grower Dave Llewellyn says higher pay hasn't resulted in more people thinning apple trees.
"We have tried to get three teams of about a dozen people going, so far there has been an average of about eight or nine here.
"A dozen or so were supposed to turn up in Haumoana and there is only two turned out in that team.
"No one has been complaining about the wage.
"We've given them all the first two days on an hourly rate of $22 an hour, just to get their eye in and get used to the job. And then we've got the contract rate where there's the ability to earn a bit more money from day three.
"So far the range has been from $22 an hour up to around $35 an hour for the faster guys.
"I like to think we run on average about $25 to $26 an hour."
Labour contractor Ali Roy also needs more people. He hires out his 40 permanent workers to growers, and a lot more temporary workers in summer.
He said he could hire 80 more people immediately, plus many more when apple harvest starts in February.
"We are offering more money. At the moment I'm offering $22 an hour."
That's almost a dollar more than last season, when he paid $21.10 or $21.20 an hour.
"We are always trying to pay more than minimum wage from the Government, about $18.90, but we always pay way more than that.
"But still it's not working."
Roy has tried to hire unemployed people but says it is difficult.
"We always try to. Early this morning I had a meeting with WINZ. There were some people there.
"I talked with them and asked them if they wanted to follow me and all that.
"They are just not there for work, to be honest. I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings but I'm just telling the truth.
"Yesterday I had six guys. They were very enthusiastic regarding work: 'Yes we are going to carry on' and all that.
"We paid them very good money yesterday – we paid them $25 an hour in this orchard – but today they are not at work.
"It's the mindset – they'd rather easy money sitting at home or doing something else – I don't know what. They just don't want to be out in the sun."
While building work habits among the long-term unemployed takes more than one day of casual work, the Government is making a big push to make it more financially attractive, with significant cash incentives.
Halfway through a contract that is at least six weeks long, the Government will pay workers $500, as well as a further $500 after completing the contract.
There is $200 in weekly accommodation support for those who move regions and still have to pay accommodation costs at home.
Some employers offer accommodation and Hastings District Council is arranging special campsites.
The big announcement this week was the Government allowing 2000 more RSE workers into New Zealand from January, but there's an extra cost for employers of about $6000 for quarantine. And the new workers must be paid the Living Wage of $22.10 per hour.
So instead of the extra supply of RSEs arrival having a dampening effect on horticultural pay rates, their presence this season might actually lift pay rates.
Major grower and exporter John Bostock said his company was "heading in the direction" of the Living Wage for all employees with a "massive pay round happening right now".
"At the moment we are moving wages up very rapidly and in the last five years wages have moved up 30 per cent while inflation has been 8 per cent."
Growers are hoping the 2000 new RSE workers will be the first of many returning to Hawke's Bay for harvest, with Hastings' Angus Inn a potential quarantine facility should the Government staff it.
Thornhill Horticultural Contracting managing director Richard Bibby said he had heard the Government was limited in its ability to staff Angus Inn with military and police personnel.
"Certainly the health part of it I think we have covered off, and that's the main part of it."
Meanwhile, the call for more locals to pick hasn't gone unheeded. At a horticultural job expo last month 500 people attended, with some representing new sources of labour.
Deaf Aotearoa facilitator Andries van Zyl said he was surprised at the scope of opportunities.
"It has been really interesting - so many different companies here," he said. "It has been a really fantastic day."
Charisse Kardie took her son and his two Te Aute College classmates to find work.
"We got a pānui in our letterbox saying we need help to get all the fruit off the trees," she said. "These boys heard that call. We as a whānau, with the support of Te Aute College, have brought them here to find mahi. So they are wanting to work from now to the school holidays giving up their own time."
Freshmax head of human resources Ross Howard said it was a "fantastic turnout" for the job expo. He said an expo was not held last year "because we relied on the RSE quite a lot".
"We do have a lot of locals that come to our business and we do need to promote New Zealanders into jobs.
"RSEs are here for the harder roles that we have in regards to the picking, which is a tough job. No bones about that, it is a tough job to do it every day, six days a week. It is hard."
Orchard foreman Kelly Whaanga said while there were probably one or two employers that relied on RSE workers at the expense of locals, most employers actively supported locals.
"We'd like to support our local industry more if we could and certainly give employment for the younger generations coming through.
"It is always an aim of ours, so I can't see why it wouldn't be for other growers as well."
George Apai said orchard work was "amazing" with "really good money".
"When I was there it was like minimum, but even then, that's awesome."
Another step the Government has made to help with the harvest is giving 11,000 visitors with expiring Working Holiday visas an extension for harvest work.
But like many Kiwis, they too can shy away from the rigours of field work, when there are less arduous alternatives that aren't casual or weather dependent.
Former blueberry picker Anna Yardley said she found the work too tough, and left after a few days to work in an office.
"I think I ended up going towards the minimum wage rate because I just wasn't fast enough.
"There are people that have done one, two, maybe three seasons and they are quite good pickers and they obviously make more.
"So it depends."
Made with funding from