Overseas workers, especially those allowed in via the RSE scheme for up to seven months each year, are a crucial component of the New Zealand horticulture industry, according to local growers.
Though large Horowhenua growers such as Woodhaven Gardens and Lewis Farms have a large local workforce, some crops and jobs require overseas expertise, they said.
"RSE workers are not cheap labour," said Geoff Lewis of Lewis Farms, who grow strawberries and asparagus.
"They are also highly skilled in what they do and come back to us year after year. They work hard, are a pleasure to work with and bring great skills and attitude to the team.
"Anyone who comes in as an RSE worker has to be paid while in quarantine and employers stomp up half their travel costs, as well as accommodation costs while here. Most of them earn a living wage, and in many cases much more than that. They make good money while here.
"But they do good work, are reliable, have a great attitude, and bring great skills. They also work very long hours in all weather. The RSE scheme helps us to grow as a business."
He said in the past vegetable growing businesses were small family-owned operations, who could provide part-time work to locals.
"There are now fewer businesses and they are much bigger, needing more people.
"We rely on an efficient workforce and for several months of the year we need RSE workers. Horticulture work is very specialised and at the height of harvest for say pipfruit (Hawke's Bay), kiwifruit (Bay of Plenty) or grapes (Marlborough) there aren't enough locals available."
Since travel restrictions have been in place, many RSE workers got stuck here and are finding employment around the country to keep them in work.
"Some of them have been away from home for almost two years now. That is a big sacrifice for our benefit. I think the government needs to recognise this," said Jay Clark from Woodhaven Gardens.
Working in a local orchard or veg patch may seem a good gig for locals, but few have the means to travel around the country, while paying rent or a mortgage somewhere, and have someone else take care of the kids or elderly parents, while they are in a paddock or orchard hundreds of miles from home.
"Moving Kiwis around the country is very hard to do," said Lewis.
"In your own neighbourhood horticulture work is only available a few months of the year, meaning you need to find other employment for the rest of the time and once people have got a part-time job somewhere they are often lost to local growers.
"We have a locals-first job policy," said Clarke. "But RSE workers do play a crucial role in our business."
Both Lewis Farms and Woodhaven Gardens have a large local workforce and operate year-round.
RSE workers are people from Pacific Islands who come and work here year after year to raise the standard of living back home.
"We often suggest after they have acquired a much better home and education for the kids that they pass the job on to someone else in their community, so they have the same opportunity," said Lewis.
"Many of these workers, who are an integral part of our workforce, support multiple families, sometimes whole communities."
For those growers not producing year-round RSE workers are even more important, said Clarke.
"Even for us they form 20 per cent of our workforce. They work in jobs for which recruitment is the hardest."
The RSE scheme has been in place since 2007 and the number of workers allowed in under this scheme has steadily risen.
According to Horticulture New Zealand, the scheme is of great benefit to the Pacific Islands. It encourages economic development, raising the standard of living for many. In 2018, the RSE scheme saw the Pacific Islands benefit by more than $40 million.
"The RSE scheme has been recognised by the World Bank as being one of the best migrant labour schemes in the world," according to Horticulture New Zealand.
In both 2019 and the 2020-21 season 14,400 workers were allowed in.
"This scheme is much better than just giving aid. They earn real money and we can harvest our crops on time. So it goes both ways," said Clarke.
"RSE workers are grateful for the work, especially because they can earn up to 10 times what they can earn at home."
To get those RSE workers on the farm growers are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths.
"It costs us $20,000 extra per worker on top of the wages we pay them and we are legally required to pay at least $2.50 above the minimum wage, though we pay above that."
Woodhaven Gardens has held on to much of last year's crop of RSE workers, who stayed behind.
"If they had managed to go home, I do not think we would have been able to get them back in by now."
He said his business is doing okay so far and is able to employ a few off-season workers too.