New Zealand / Rural

Hawke's Bay apple growers' fear looming labour shortage

17:20 pm on 20 November 2018

A looming apple picker shortage is worrying Hawke's Bay growers despite more workers from the Pacific being brought into help.

RSE workers from Samoa working in Bostock orchard, Hastings. Photo: RNZ / Anusha Bradley

An extra 1750 workers nationwide will arrive under the Recognised Seasonal Employer, or RSE scheme, this season. It is hoped between 500 to 600 will land in Hawke's Bay.

The increase was being welcomed by growers but they were concerned it failed to keep pace with the region's record low unemployment and an industry that was planting a million new trees a year.

Growers said if they had to invest in housing RSE workers they needed more assurances that more workers would be allowed under the scheme in years to come.

Bostock was the country's largest organic apple grower. Owner John Bostock said he had invested money in buying motels or building accommodation without any guarantee that he would get the workers he needed.

"We've applied for 60, and we've prepared for 60... we've purchased and built housing which takes months and years to organise. But we don't know the numbers [that will arrive] until just a few months before harvest," Mr Bostock said.

"Business hates uncertainty. So we would ask the government to give us more certainty," he said.

With backpackers still shunning orchard work and the unemployment rate in Hawke's Bay halving to just 4 percent in the past year, growers are worried about who will pick these apples come harvest time.

"We're really grateful that the government has lifted the RSE cap but it's certainly not going to resolve the labour shortage that we see coming," T&G Pipfruit general manager Bruce Beaton said.

"With record low unemployment and a large crop coming starting in February, it does keep us awake at night thinking about how we are going to resource the harvest," he said.

Hawke's Bay was short of about 2000 apple pickers last harvest, prompting growers to push hard for an increase in more RSE workers.

In return, the government stipulated that growers must build more accommodation for RSE workers so they did not compete for housing with locals.

That was important in places like Hawke's Bay, where rents were at all-time highs and it was typical for hundreds of people to apply for a single property to rent.

Apples and Pears New Zealand business development manager Gary Jones said providing accommodation was costly, without the certainty.

"It costs $20,000 to $25,000 a bed to build accommodation... you need to make sure that someone is going to be in that bed," Mr Jones said.

With the apple industry growing 4 percent a year, there were fears labour shortages would only worsen, he said.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway was not available to comment but in a statement last week he said the RSE scheme would be comprehensively reviewed in 2019.

He also issued a challenge to growers to make the industry more attractive to New Zealand workers by offering higher wages, and improve efficiencies by investing in mechanisation where possible.