There's something a little disturbing and a little sad about the fact we apparently need to import foreign labour to pick our crops for us – or for that matter, to milk our cows - and it doesn't bode well for our future.

Not that there's anything inherently wrong in supporting developing nations – mainly our Pacific neighbours – by utilising their willing workers to harvest what we Kiwis seem unable or unwilling to reap for ourselves.

But it raises some fundamental questions about both the underlying causes of the so-called labour shortage, and the social impacts of becoming reliant on immigrants to do our "dirty work" for us. Remember the dawn raids on Polynesian factory workers?

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Not to mention the question of who benefits, and whether the benefits are as widespread as they should be. Indeed, whether the whole scheme is more-or-less a rort from which a few powerful growers get rich while the rest of us pay for it.

See, in Hawke's Bay horticulture may be booming, with a million new trees going in to local orchards, but the growth is concentrated within a half-dozen large companies who are also slowly eating up their smaller competition.

Likewise they're best set up to exploit the Recognised Seasonal Employee scheme and skim the majority of seasoned pickers off the planes, leaving smaller growers to scratch around for a mix of locals and working tourists to bring in their crops.

The corporates are also the ones whose expansion drives the continual labour shortage, operating on the apparent premise that if they plant them they will come – putting added pressure on government to make it so.

And let's not forget this allows wages for pickers to remain stuck at 1990s levels; the reward for picking a standard bin of fruit has barely changed since. Poor islanders may be happy, but locals eye the rates for what is gruelling hot work with scepticism.

That's one barrier to finding New Zealanders to pick the crops, but it isn't the only part of that equation.

A decent wage as a picker is based on output, not on hours; there may be a base stipend but those who can't pick fast enough are quickly let go. So you need to be fit and full of stamina to earn reasonable money.

When employment is low – as now – a large proportion of those still drawing welfare are only nominally looking for work because they aren't fit for physically-demanding tasks, and aren't supported to get up to speed.


The draconian unemployment rules which suspend a benefit while you're in short-term employment also impose what can be a lengthy stand-down period when the job ends.

Hastings councillor Malcolm Dixon's idea of paying seasonal workers on top of a benefit, rather than instead of, is a novel and actually cost-effective solution that would allow even the laze-abouts to get physically active and build work ethic while under no pressure to perform when paid by bin-rate.

Other factors such as transport, accommodation and, especially for stock-farm workers, relative isolation also play a part, but the bottom line is farmers of all descriptions must make the work attractive to attract workers – and at their own cost, not society's.

Because it's hard to feel sympathy for wealthy growers pleading crisis and looking overseas for low-wage employees when the price we consumers pay in our supermarkets for home-grown fresh fruit and milk increases year on year, regardless.

If that part of the equation were more balanced, perhaps we'd all accept this regime. But when even working families can't afford good food, the industry's stance appears short-sighted and exploitative.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet. Views expressed are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's.