Hawke's Bay is staring down the barrel of a massive seasonal worker shortfall that growers say could cripple the region's Covid-19 recovery plan.
Approximately 10,000 workers are needed in the horticulture and viticulture sectors across the region starting from next month, with another 8000 permanent jobs in the region at risk if they aren't found.
But Covid-19 has devastated New Zealand's seasonal workforce with very few Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers and backpackers left in the country.
Local horticultural leaders say that Pacific workers who would normally travel to New Zealand are also being enticed this season to Australia for their recommenced Seasonal Worker Programme.
New Zealand Apples and Pears chief executive Alan Pollard said the economic ramifications are massive, particularly with the region recovering from Covid-19 lockdown.
"The Hawke's Bay economy has at risk $715 million of GDP in apples and pears alone, and well over $1 billion with wine and other horticultural crops," he said.
Growers met with the region's leaders this week to plan and consider solutions for the upcoming harvest.
Hastings Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst said more than 8000 permanent jobs in the region will be at risk if the fruit is not picked:
"These permanent roles depend on the trees being planted and pruned and the fruit being picked – all of which is looking more and more difficult with a severe labour shortage pending."
Solutions mooted at this week's meetings include attracting more unemployed New Zealanders, using workers from Corrections facilities, changing the flexibility of work hours and making the work physically easier through technologies like work platforms.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council chair Rex Graham said whatever the solutions are, they will have to happen quickly with thinning getting under way in November.
Hazlehurst said Hawke's Bay is also working with central government on the country's immigration policies.
They have asked for more flexibility in the RSE scheme; for workers from Covid-free countries to quarantine at their onsite worker accommodation while still working.
"We are meeting with the Immigration Minister when he visits Hawke's Bay later this month to discuss what can be done," Hazlehurst said.
"The horticulture and viticulture sectors need all of our support to address this urgent situation and we look forward to having those conversations."