Partnership key to address labour shortages

13 Apr 2018

apple harvest group bins

All New Zealand industries are currently experiencing a shortage of workers. In some areas, particularly in the South Island, there are very few unemployed, and in some cases less than 50 for a whole regional district. The declaration of labour shortages in Central Otago earlier this year, and now in Hawke's Bay and Nelson districts, are key indicators that there are simply not enough workers for the current harvest. 

Labour shortages are declared by the Ministry for Social Development / Work and Income, and so are only declared when Work and Income believes there are not enough unemployed workers available and suitable for harvest work in these districts. A declared labour shortage allows visitors to New Zealand to have their visa changed to permit them to work in the industry that has had a labour shortage declared for. This is, however, a short term fix, and relies heavily on there being visitors in New Zealand who are willing to work in horticulture; there is no certainty that visitors will make themselves available for work. What we require is a long-term fix, both for seasonal and permanent workers. 

There are a number of reports that have predicted this impending shortage. The Ministry for Primary Industries work off a figure of 26,300 extra workers by 2025 for horticulture alone. The University of Waikato says kiwifruit in the Bay of Plenty needs just over 14,000 by 2030. Lastly, NZIER has estimated that, on an annual basis, horticulture is short between 2,500 and 5,500 seasonal horticulture workers each year. These predictions are rapidly coming to pass.

So what can be done about this growing shortage of both permanent and seasonal workers? With there being less Kiwi workers available, industry has to do more to attract and retain reliable workers by increasing their skills; there are initiatives running at individual grower and by district sourcing and training kiwis for the industry. Clearly there need to be more of these schemes put in place in areas were horticulture is expanding, and particularly where there is higher unemployment.

In the short to medium term, these New Zealanders will need to be supplemented by immigration. There is already the very successful RSE scheme, focused on bringing Pacific Islanders on a temporary basis to New Zealand for seasonal work. This year, a total of 11,100 RSE workers will come to New Zealand, and return home once harvest and pruning are completed. But this scheme on its own is not enough, and only provides seasonal workers for short term activities. 

New initiatives will need to be developed that focus on more and targeted permanent migration to New Zealand, to ensure that the massive growth in horticulture can continue; our industry goal of $10 billion by 2020 is hugely dependent on labour supply. In the long term we need to develop a much larger and skilled Kiwi workforce, not just for horticulture, but for all industry to meet the demands of growth across New Zealand. 

That can all only be done in an active partnership with Government; the success of RSE is in large part because its governance and operation is a joint Government / industry partnership.  This partnership needs to be expanded to cover all aspects of employment because, as the RSE scheme shows, neither Government nor industry on their own can be as successful, and the full resources of both need to be used to make the difference that is so vitally needed.

- Mike Chapman, CEO