As a workplace, the kiwifruit industry gets a bit of a bad rap.

It's not as bad as some, but there's no denying there have been issues with pay levels, conditions and hours and a heavy reliance on workers from overseas either on the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) or short-term work visas.

But it's not universal, and one contractor, Luciano Garcia, is doing more than his bit to reverse perceptions.

Spearheading his efforts are the desire to employ more Kiwis and to retain workers in an industry notorious for huge staff turnovers. With their shared goals, he and the Ministry of Social Development are working hand in hand.

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Originally from Brazil, managing director Luciano started Garcia Contracting Services 2011, but has been involved in the kiwifruit industry since 2005.

Many of the workers he has employed have been from overseas.

"We've had people from South America, Europe, the Pacific Islands, India and a little bit of New Zealanders," he says.

As a contractor he has always had contact with Work and Income, but that relationship became closer in 2017 and now there is a partnership aimed at helping Kiwis into kiwifruit work in the Western Bay of Plenty.

"My background is economics — in Brazil I worked in the garment industry — people and processes. Then I came to New Zealand and did the same — just changed industries," he says.

"In Brazil we have migrant [workers] but not as many as in New Zealand. It took me a lot of time to see the significance of cultural influence in the workplace.

"One problem we have in the kiwifruit industry is turnover of staff. When you check the data, you see people work for one month, two months, three months — you can't have any business working well if you have a huge turnover of staff — it's just impossible."
He began to look for an answer.

"I said look, we need to change this focus — we still need to try and get migrants and RSEs, of course this is important, but if we want this business to grow better, we want people to stay long-term."

That was when he started working directly with Work and Income work broker Marian Jamieson.

"It had to be up-front, with better communication. I think we have worked a lot on communication."

He realised it would not be easy to change perceptions and it is still a challenge and there is a lot to achieve.

"I am here and I like this country. New Zealand is my home.

"We need to take ownership and accountability that we need to attract New Zealanders back to the industry because the kiwifruit industry doesn't have a good reputation.

"Unfortunately it has a terrible reputation and I believe this does not convey the truth of the work. I just think people may have had a bad experience somewhere and believe the bad reputation to be the truth in every company. I want to show that it is not the truth."
He wanted to create a company that belongs to New Zealand culture and has a good multicultural environment.

He says for Kiwis, working in kiwifruit is perceived as a low level job but the reality is there is a huge range of jobs in the industry from machine operation to management and research.

"Starting as a casual agricultural employee can be just a start. Working in an orchard can be very appealing to those who like to be outdoors. There are so many roles available and I don't think people know about how diverse the work can be.

"We have a lot of migrants in the company, but we have started a process — we have got our leaders in courses for "softer skills" [such as conflict resolution and people management] and started to train the leadership to understand how important the culture is and how we need to make an environment that we can attract New Zealanders and retain the good workers.

"We made a lot of trials and some failed, but we kept carrying on and time by time it was improving."

Now, at one site in Waihi, 95 per cent of the workforce is Kiwi. Across the company it is between 15 and 20 per cent.

"It used to be less than 5 per cent," says Luciano."

Ministry of Social Development labour market manager Brent MacDonald says the department's mandate is to get Kiwis into meaningful, full-time, sustainable work.

Working with Luciano has the aim of doing that, but it is very much a trial.

"From our perspective, he's really trying to get New Zealanders into the industry and working, and we will support him in that if it's working.

"He's the first cab off the rank — there are others we've had initial discussions with, but haven't gone much further, and what we are hoping is that this is an example to others."
The department has been working with packhouses to recruit Kiwis for around 15 years and with orchard maintenance contractors for the past five years.

"We've tried various things, but it hasn't kind of worked out that well so far."

He says the goal is to get Kiwis into long-term employment either by using the packing season as a stepping stone for more permanent work, or to open the door to a career within the kiwifruit industry.