Kiwifruit packhouses are offering workers more money and flexible shifts in a desperate effort to avoid a labour crisis as another record-breaking harvest looms.
The harvest is expected to kick off within the week with 23,000 seasonal workers needed nationally - including about 20,000 in the Bay of Plenty.
Packhouses spoken to by NZME are offering major incentives - including flexibility across shifts alongside roles that could lead to fulltime employment.
Starting rates will be $22.10 an hour compared with last year's average hourly packhouse rates of $19 to $20.
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc is also partnering with the Ministry for Primary Industries on free taster courses and the Ministry of Social Development was providing free transport to encourage job seekers off the dole.
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson also said because of border restrictions 50 per cent fewer Recognised Seasonal Workers were available this season.
''While an additional 2000 RSE workers have entered through country through managed isolation, the Bay of Plenty will see less than half of its normal numbers. Some workers will transfer to kiwifruit in May after harvesting apples in Hawke's Bay but this is likely to be too late for peak kiwifruit harvest.''
The kiwifruit industry was ''booming'' and she hopes New Zealanders would put up their hands for work as only small numbers of pickers and packers were on the orchards at the moment.
Last year, the average picking rate was about $24 an hour and she expected that to be higher. Packhouse wages had also increased to $22.10 an hour and above.
EastPack chief executive Hamish Simson said about 3200 seasonal jobs were available and the company had ''tried to make a bit of noise around the opportunities''.
''We've had a good response from locals, which is great and we have signed up quite a few.''
He said EastPack was trying to make the jobs as attractive as possible for Kiwis by raising the pay and making shifts more flexible to accommodate a wider range of workers.
''We are really trying to fit as many people as possible who may want to work fulltime or partime or flexible shifts. There are pros and cons with seasonal jobs but we want more Kiwis to come and work for us.''
Seeka Growers and Marketing general manager Jim Smith said the company had about 2700 roles available across its eight sites in Kerikeri, Coromandel, Katikati, Mount Maunganui and Te Puke.
Its recruitment campaign had been running since mid January, and there still a number of vacancies to fill, particularly at Te Puke.
''We offer competitive rates, flexibility of hours, as well as transport opportunities as the need arises.''
Trevelyan's Pack and Cool human resources manager Jodi Johnstone said it had 1500 seasonal jobs to fill and was looking for graders, packers, strappers, tray liners, stackers, forklift drivers and quality control positions.
The company had received more than 2000 online applications at the beginning of the month and would provide transport for staff from Rotorua to their site in Te Puke.
"We are looking to see where there might be people available and are encouraging them to join our team.''
Mount Pack & Cool general manager Brendon Lee said the business had about 500 seasonal positions available for the harvest.
"We've been busy recruiting for the last couple of months and have contracted about 80 per cent of those positions. So there are still jobs available."
Employees would earn at least the living wage of $22.10.
"The industry has recognised if you pay more you attract more."
Zespri head of communication and external relations Michael Fox said it was ''expecting another record-breaking crop this season, with more Zespri SunGold kiwifruit than green''.
Ministry for Social Development Bay of Plenty regional commissioner Mike Bryant said seasonal opportunities could be a stepping-stone to other types of work and lead to full-time work.
''To address this year's demand, and the disruption to the seasonal labour supply caused by Covid, we have been working on a number of strategies and targeting a number of different groups to fill these positions.
''We are screening people who show an interest and aptitude for summer work and connecting with other sectors to look at initiatives for long-term, year-round sustainable employment opportunities.''
Figures show last year 1500 job seekers went off the benefit in the Bay of Plenty and into seasonal kiwifruit jobs.
An Immigration New Zealand spokeswoman said about 800 RSE workers were in the Bay of Plenty and about 675 were working in the kiwifruit sector.
In March 2019, 2179 RSE workers were in the Bay.
The largest number of RSE workers usually come from Vanuatu, followed by Samoa.
EastPack's $10 million robotic technology
Robots that can process two boxes of kiwifruit in one second and put them on to pallets will debut at EastPack this season.
Chief executive Hamish Simson said the $10 million state-of-the-art technology had been a three-year work in progress.
EastPack had been trialling automation technology across several graders but was the first time it was doing it to scale on its largest grader at the Washer Rd site in Te Puke.
''There comes a time when you are going to jump in the deep end. So really the upgrade involves high-speed packing, high-speed boxing and palletising.
''It kind of really removes the human element.''
Now boxes could be made, labelled and put on to pallets, all automatically.
Simson said the throughput would increase by close to 50 per cent.
''We still need people but a lot less and when we are in a constrained labour market, particularly with the border closed, it gives us more resilience to pack the fruit at high speed.
''It is a sort of a look into the future really. I have not seen a grader in the world quite like it.''
Free kiwifruit harvest taster day
• Work is available on kiwifruit orchards and in packhouses, and the taster day covers both.
• The first part of the day is in a classroom, followed by time in an orchard and in a packing facility. Lunch is provided.
• In Te Puke on March 8/9 and 15/16.
• Register at www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/0E5MYN/ or call 0800 232 505.