New Zealand's apple and pear industry is the envy of the world. For every hectare of orchard, we pick 61 tonnes of fruit. South Africa, the second most productive nation in the industry, yields 48 tonnes per hectare. The international average comes in at a modest 23.4 tonnes of fruit per hectare.
Conclusion: We have some of the best fruit pickers.
Only the majority of them are not New Zealand residents or citizens. For years, we've relied heavily on a mix of Pacific workers under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme and working holiday visa holders to do the hard labour. The rather precarious employment arrangement has worked well, and embedded itself as the backbone of the ever-expanding horticulture and viticulture industries. Fruit and wine exports are now worth $6 billion, of which apple and pears make up $870 million.
But Covid is forcing us to confront the reliance of these industries on overseas labour. The role and operation of the RSE scheme is at a particularly interesting crossroads.
Recently, media reports have highlighted ugly incidents of mistreatment and abuse of Pacific workers. Poor living conditions and low wages have come under scrutiny.
The recording of a meeting between Solomon Island workers - who had sought help from the Labour Inspectorate - and an angry Hawke's Bay employer also prompted Government inquiries. Further, the entire RSE scheme is being reviewed as part of the Government's Pacific Reset policy.
The industry is also trying to make jobs usually filled by overseas workers more palatable to locals. To do that, it must look closely at what makes these seasonal jobs impractical for people who live here. That is not an easy point to address, even during a recession.
Put bluntly, there is a reason why thousands of overseas workers are flown in to complete physically demanding, low paid, limited-term work. Indeed, the National Party has already said it would permit Pacific RSE workers should it be elected.
Labour is yet to clarify its stance, but it should be noted that under the coalition Government, the number of RSE workers increased annually in response to requests from the horticulture and viticulture industries. Essentially, these industries are too valuable to leave labour shortages unaddressed. Further, RSE workers are relatively low-risk because of the Covid-free status of many Pacific nations.
Therefore, as we look to improve working conditions for the local workforce pool, we should also consider improvements for RSE workers.
Here, a bit of history assists in understanding the current climate and power imbalance that exists between New Zealand and supplier nations like Vanuatu, Tonga and Sāmoa.
Implemented in 2007, the RSE scheme was based on two main policy objectives for New Zealand. First, the urgent need to fill workforce shortages in wine and fruit industries.
Second, the expected benefits to foreign policy goals in the Pacific. That is, by employing temporary labour from the islands, a cash injection via wages filters back to our Pacific neighbours, contributing to overall development in those countries.
Notably, there was also pressure from Pacific leaders for New Zealand and Australia to open up these labour opportunities. Income for RSE participants often means real change on the ground - even if it requires months away from home and loved ones in tough work conditions. A 10-year longitudinal case study which followed a group of ni-Vanuatu men who were repeat RSE workers demonstrates this. Children's school fees, housing, business start-up funds and materials for community wells were among things workers paid for with RSE earnings.
Related to these types of experiences is the popularity of the scheme in participating nations. Places are highly sought after because the scheme provides access to income levels simply unavailable to many in small island nations. As shown with the 10-year study of ni-Vanuatu men, that often has significant impacts on families and villages.
Does that make it right though? Over the years, reports of worker mistreatment, abuse and exploitation show the scheme is not without problems.
Further, fear of retribution from fellow workers, community elders, as well as employers are common barriers to speaking out. Blacklisting from the scheme is another known barrier. Consistent with other forms of worker exploitation, rocking the boat when you are in it is often viewed as detrimental and risky.
That brings me back to New Zealand's role. As a country, we have benefited from more than a decade of Pacific RSE workers. In that time, the horticulture and viticulture industries have expanded significantly, with the number of RSE workers each year almost tripling to match demand - from 5000 in 2007 to 14,400 this year.
Fruit and wine industry exports are also expected to be essential in our Covid recovery story. Of course, the benefits have not been one-way.
Pacific workers earn wages in the orchards which are unattainable at home. But it is this dynamic which puts them at higher risk of mistreatment and exploitation - despite the demand and preference for their skills and labour.
Any efforts to improve picking and harvesting jobs must address this, and the existing gaps in conditions, pay and rights for RSE workers.