National calls for quarantine-free entry from Pacific to fill labour shortfall

National is calling on the Government to allow quarantine-free travel from Covid-free Pacific countries to urgently plug the labour gap in the horticultural sector.
The news came on the same day as it was reported that one of the country's largest strawberry growers a forthright critic of Government policies keeping the crucial Pacific Island labour force locked out - is calling it a day.

Stuff understands that Francie Perry of Perrys Berrys has chosen to walk away from forty years in horticulture after repeatedly calling on the Government to give growers a break and let more Registered Seasonal Employers (RSE) scheme workers into the country.

Perry declined to comment when contacted by Stuff.


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Nationals horticulture spokesman David Bennett said it was clear the Government wasn't listening to the sector.

Bennett said allowing seasonal workers from Covid-free countries to enter without quarantine needed to happen fast to plug the gap in the workforce.

Without a consistent supply of quality produce to export, the reputation of New Zealand producers could be damaged in the long term, he said.

To see produce going to waste doesn't make any sense when we can sell it to the international market and to our own consumers. It means less downstream jobs and higher prices for New Zealanders.

MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF
Peter Cederman employs RSE workers at his Brooklyn orchard in the Tasman district and says his business couldn't survive without them. (Video first published October 11, 2020)

National was willing to increase labour supply through the RSE scheme. The increase in RSE workers announced before Christmas wasnt sufficient to meet the demand, Bennett said.

Apple growers were looking at downscaling their businesses to match the labour supply next year.

While non-performing trees were regularly replaced, the sector was looking at cutting down additional tree stock to cope, Bennett said.

Strawberry Growers executive manager Michael Ahern said Perry was an admirable warrior for the industry.

Ahern said it was too early to say whether there would be a shortfall in the strawberry supply, until the crop was in the ground in mid-June. Even then a good growing season would be needed to really assess the impact of Perrys departure.

Other growers will be measuring whether they will want to fill that gap.

Perry had invested heavily in the RSE worker scheme, he said.

At the heart of the horticulture sector's crisis was the Governments refusal to allow the sector to privately manage quarantine facilities for RSE workers, Ahern said.

David White/Stuff
A major strawberry grower, Perrys Berrys, is quitting the industry, Stuff understands.

Strawberry growers made planting decisions in January. The annual crop had to be planted each year, and by the time Covid struck, the crop was in the ground.

A year on, those strawberry growers who relied on RSEs, were eyeing the Governments position with respect to RSEs, and asking themselves if they wanted to live with that level of uncertainty, he said.

Some of them may say the odds are too high.

Strawberry growers were only a taste of what was to come for others in the sector, including apple and kiwifruit growers, Ahern said.

The apple industry, which reported this week that was likely to take a $100 million dollar export hit this year, were already focused on how to manage the next harvest and asking themselves whether to pull up trees, Ahern said.

Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Mike Chapman said the seasonal nature of the work made fruit picking undesirable for most Kiwis.

There werent enough workers in the country to fill the demand, despite industry putting a lot of work into recruitment campaigns, nor were there enough backpackers in the country to fill the gap, he said.

The normal cohort of 12,000 RSE workers was down to 7000 this year due to border closures.

Bejon Haswell/Stuff
Dainel Vaiangina is a Tongan RSE worker at MA Orchards in Timaru. The normal cohort of 12,000 RSE workers were down to 7000 this year due to border closures.

The solution was to get some movement from Covid-free Pacific Island countries, Ahern said, adding they could be bought in, in bubbles, and kept separate from people entering from countries with Covid.

Getting the movement from the Pacific is the most sensible solution to this problem. And it's a big problem. The potential for people going out of business because they can't get labour is real, its not crying wolf.

The United Kingdom was allowing about 30,000 workers from the European Union to come in for harvest in bubbles, with regular testing and being looked after their employers for the first two weeks, he said.

Weve got to not only worry about the health of the country, but also the wealth of the country.

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