By Christine Rovoi - RNZ Pacific Journalist
Despite the arrival of seasonal workers from the Pacific to New Zealand, there are fears the upcoming season will still be a big challenge.
New Zealand has a new one-way travel bubble with Pacific island countries such as Samoa, Vanuatu and Tonga.
Vaccinated RSE workers from these countries can come to New Zealand without self-isolating or taking Covid-19 tests on arrival, after the one-way quarantine-free travel took effect last week.
Up to 5000 workers are needed across the horticulture and viticulture industries during peak summer season in December and January.
The usual supply of backpackers to New Zealand's recognised seasonal workers scheme remains cut off due to Covid-19 border restrictions.
Employers say they are also unclear how many RSE workers will be around when harvest begins next month.
Tanya Pouwhare, of New Zealand's Ethical Employers, says they are working with the government to address the growers' concerns.
Staff shortages are inevitable after Christmas especially if they have a bumper cherry harvest, Pouwhare adds.
"Different regions are having different domestics, unemployment levels. We've still got issues with our border settings where we're not allowed backpackers in because of the closed borders.
"Majority of the RSE sending countries, thankfully we've got the Q3 countries with Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga.
"The responsibility that we have to help with New Zealand's Covid recovery. Of making sure that our industries are sustainable and robust to be able to help our country out of that and into what comes next."
It's been a really tough time for everyone, Pouwhare said.
She's urging all stakeholders to work together to protect the workers and meet the industries' demands.
"The amazing collaboration that industry and government have had since Covid is being one of the silver linings.
"So meeting with our immigration minister every two weeks to understand what those pinpoints are and to able to find and identify ways that the minister can help.
"His role within his restrictions as well has been key to being able to have two border exemptions where we can bring workers in - there was one earlier to mid-way through this year.
"Then being able to bring them in through QFT and then through isolation protocols.
"And now being able to bring them in with the one incoming pathway from those three Pacific countries without the requirement of MIQ or those stringent isolation protocols have helped keep our industries alive," Pouwhare said.
New Zealand's one-way travel bubble has seen the first group of seasonal workers arrive from Tonga last week.
Langi Fatanitavake is a supervisor at the Mr Apple Farm in Hawke's Bay and he's welcomed the quarantine-free travel.
Fatanitavake was among the 21 Tongans who arrived in New Zealand last week.
The island kingdom has just completed a seven-day lockdown after a man who arrived on a repatriation flight from Christchurch two weeks ago tested positive but a weak form of the virus, health authorities in Tonga said.
Fatanitavake says New Zealand's one-way travel bubble opens the door for family and friends to re-connect.
He says the move also provides more security for Pasifika seeking employment.
But with less than a month until harvest, Fatanitavake says more needs to be done to bring Pacific islanders eager to work in New Zealand.
"I thank the New Zealand government for giving us this wonderful chance for RSE people from Tonga on the first picking labour for the new season for this year.
"In Hawke's Bay, I see there are not enough people to carry out the work. RSE is now setting up and preparing some of the Samoans to go home for Christmas this year.
"I think over here we need more people from the Pacific to come to New Zealand because there's more work [to be done] and there's not enough people."
Australia has opened its borders to workers from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Timor Leste and Vanuatu amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
With international backpackers also locked out of Australia by Covid-19 border restrictions, agricultural lobby groups there are urging the government to allow more temporary workers from the Pacific to prevent crops going to waste.
Australia's Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja is in Fiji this week and says every effort is being made to address the staff shortages.
"We have seen some workers staying in Australia for a period of time," Seselja said.
"The departments work with workers where it's appropriate to be able to re-deploy but it needs to be done within visa conditions and we must ensure that the integrity of the scheme is maintained."
Seselja was also questioned over reports seasonal workers are being exploited in his country.
"It is important they're investigated. We do have strong powers for the fair works ombudsman to investigate where there are claims of underpayment or other inappropriate practices so that this sort of thing doesn't happen.
"We believe it is isolated and when it does happen, we need to get on top of it very quickly.
Australia's migrant labour programme allows vaccinated people from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, East Timor and Vanuatu to work in regional parts of Australia for up to three years.
Meanwhile, New Zealand-based researcher Charlotte Bedford of the Australia National University said there were about 7,000 seasonal workers still in New Zealand in August this year, most of them stuck there due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In her research, Bedford found there were normally over 10,000 workers at the peak of the RSE season.
But with no end in sight to New Zealand's Covid crisis, growers and workers are uncertain what February and March might bring.