Government to let in 2000 fruit pickers from Pacific – but with living wage catch

Two thousand workers from the Pacific will come to New Zealand early next year to pick fruit for the horticulture and wine industries.

Their arrival is hoped to cover a huge hole in the labour force and avert what many growers have been calling a crisis.

But there are Government conditions to the deal.

Employers will have to pay the workers a living wage of $22.10 an hour, pay them 30 hours’ a week while they’re in managed isolation for 14 days, and cover their isolation costs – estimated at $4472 a worker.

The deal was announced this morning by Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor.

Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman welcomed it but warned about possible labour shortages for the spring 2021 and harvest 2022 seasons.

“While the timing of the Government’s decision means that spring and early summer crops have missed out, growers across the country are relieved that some of the essential workers needed from low Covid risk Pacific countries are being let in,” Chapman said.

The workers will be granted a border exception as Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers, and will fly in between mid-January and March. The staggered arrivals are aimed at continuing to have MIQ spaces for returning Kiwis.

Where the workers fly in from is still to be determined but, to qualify, the country needs an agreed plan to take back all of their RSE workers – not just those in the 2000-strong cohort – when the 2020/21 season ends.

Horticulture and wine exports were worth $6.5 billion in the last financial year, with the sector employing about 38,300 New Zealanders, mainly in the regions.

But growers have been crying out for more workers. There are normally about 14,400 RSE workers a year, but the pandemic and border restrictions have cut that workforce in half.

Meanwhile, the number of unemployed people rose by 37,000 – totalling 151,000 – in the September quarter amid concerns that ripe crops were going to rot on the ground.

This morning the Government also announced incentives for Kiwis to work in the sector, including up to $200 in weekly accommodation support for those who move regions for this work and continue to have accommodation costs at home.

Halfway through a contract that’s at least six weeks long, Kiwi workers will also receive $500 from the Government, as well as a further $500 after completing the contract.

O’Connor said the industries were also expected to make this work more attractive to Kiwis by addressing issues such as transport, accommodation, pay and training.

He added that employers were also on notice that the workers were expected to be treated well and fully employed.

There are about 6000 RSE workers from last year who have been allowed to stay and work this season, while those with Working Holiday visas expiring between October 2020 and March 2021 have been invited into the SSE (Supplementary Seasonal Employment) scheme to work in the sectors.

Of 12,300 people with such Working Holiday visas, 1300 have been transferred to SSE.

Those on current visitor, student and work visas can also apply for a SSE visa if they have a job offer from an eligible employer, or if the job is listed as needed by the Ministry of Social Development.

“And to streamline the application process, the Government is removing requirements for police and medical checks for these visa applications,” Faafoi said.

Border exceptions are only granted where there are critical labour shortages that can’t be filled by Kiwis.

So far exceptions have been granted for 30 veterinarians, 570 deep water fishing crew – many of whom were from Russia and Ukraine and were in quarantine for longer than 14 days due to a flurry of infections – 210 agricultural mobile plant operators, 250 PhD and post-graduate students, 100 people with “essential” reasons to travel through New Zealand to the Pacific, 2770 critical health workers, and 60 shearers.

The RSE deal means that few other border exceptions are expected to be granted until April.

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