“We have made it clear to sector representatives that under current Covid constraints … it is still unlikely that we will be able to bring in the sort of RSE worker numbers next season that were able to come here pre-Covid,” says Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi.

If these words stand, the Labour Government will have effectively capped the Hawke’s Bay fruit growing industry. And in fact, faced with a labour shortage like this season’s, prudent growers will likely be retrenching … moving backwards.

The jobs at stake are not simply overseas seasonal orchard workers, the flow on from a 25% reduction in harvesting affects permanent local jobs in the industry, including processing, while the tightening competition for scarce Kiwi labour leads to cannibalizing other primary businesses, like the meat processors. 

I wonder how our region’s Labour MPs – we boast an Associate Agriculture Minister and an Economic & Regional Development Miniaster – plan to avoid this industry-defeating scenario.

Further afield, I just read that Fed Farmers and Dairy NZ are pleading for 500 more migrant workers.

For sure, the pandemic has driven the need to curtail access to NZ. And Minister Faafoi notes that over 2,000 seasonal workers were given access this season, “the single biggest economic based border exception to date”.

But Covid constraints aside, maybe there’s a bigger elephant in the room. 

Without question, the primary sector production and economic pyramid sits on a mission-critical base of low-wage workers, whether these are pickers, dairy farm workers, or entry-level workers in processing facilities. Presently, the wages being offered for these positions hover in the $22-$30 range. The jobs in the field are tough and physically demanding, those in the plants can be mind-numbing, and both offer some danger.

Experience to date indicates that not enough Kiwis – brown or white – want these jobs, whether seasonal or permanent. And isn’t that the issue. Full stop?!

The typical Facebook pundit has an easy answer … pay more. But will that start a stampede to the orchards and packhouses? Don’t kid yourselves.

Any increased labour costs, if added, will need to be passed on (ultimately) to consumers, whether they are local or overseas. Overseas, NZ is a puny supplier of these food products, competing against low wage giants. Not much future in that. And at home, are the armchair wage boosters prepared to pay those added costs out of their home food budgets? Dream on!

Would a 15% reduction in food costs at the store counter (e.g., removing GST on food) provide needed ‘lubrication’ to subsidise higher labour costs? Might be some promise there (with social equity benefits as well). Variations on this theme must have been ‘modeled’ by now by some agency or think tank.

How about going the other direction … can farm labour costs be reduced? Minister Faafoi talks about robotic pickers. Relevant technology is evolving – and already settling into food processing operations – but won’t offer practical harvesting alternatives for some considerable time.

So maybe our current primary sector pyramid is in fact doomed. Kiwis diss the bottom rung jobs. Immigration keeps the doors shut even in healthier times (we can’t house the people we have). Food rots on the ground. Animal herds and flocks are trimmed way back. And the whole industry collapses.

Or, perhaps shrunken in size, not value, is re-built from the bottom up. 

We hang on to all the HB versatile soil we can. An agricultural labour force that can be counted upon with certainty, at whatever pay scale, is re-focused on growing and marketing ‘safe’, ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ food products capable of commanding the highest possible premiums from the local and overseas wealthy … while somehow also meeting the day-to-day healthy food requirements of HB’s poor-to-average income family.

We say Kiwis are world-class innovators. Who’s got the answer?!

More on this season’s harvesting issues here.

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2 Comments

  1. There’s no mention of a universal basic income (UBI) removing the welfare system that traps people into welfare dependency and the huge bureaucracy these beneficiaries endure. That would free up some people.
    Complementary currencies could also help like a UBI.

  2. How do you motivate a NZers to pick apples , send them overseas , away from all the stereotypes they have grown up with . Thats a reason overseas employees / backpackers are an asset .

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