Keith Newman asks why all the focus is on training full-time horticultural workers and importing immigrant workers for seasonal picking, packing and pruning, when the dole queue’s still growing?
While Work & Income New Zealand (WINZ) pays most of the region’s unemployed to stay at home, around 3,000 Pacific Island workers have flooded into Hawke’s Bay to assist orchardists, croppers and grape growers cope with the annual harvest.
Without a guaranteed labour force, horticulturalists are at great risk of missing seasonal and export market demands, and like the strict quality controls around their produce, they’re also increasingly particular about who does the picking.
Hawke’s Bay’s population is currently more diverse than usual with Melanesian workers strolling the streets or in the queues at supermarkets, an observation that’s at the root of many dinner table conversations about ‘lazy locals’ who should be made to work for their government hand-outs.
Unfortunately the solution is more complex than social banter might betray. It’s even been suggested the problem is partly of our own making, based on the assumption that a local labour force has the skills, wants the drama of seasonal uncertainty and can simply be turned on and off like a kitchen tap.
While not buying into the lazy Kiwi stereotype, Xan Harding, chairman of HB Winegrowers Association, suggests our expectations are at times unreasonable. “You cannot expect people on the unemployment benefit to climb up and down a three metre ladder for nine hours in the Hawke’s Bay heat and pick two tonnes of apples to specification and quality. It’s just not going to happen.”
Regardless, concerns have been raised that increasing corporatisation of many of our orchards and vineyards has transformed once enjoyable community opportunities into export-driven processes that treat people like cogs in the machine.
Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Inc (NKII) chairman Ngāhiwi Tomoana claims corporate employers often want everything “done in synch” and prefer a “contained” and “pliable” immigrant work force who don’t question things like Kiwis do.
He says this demand for efficiencies has ended up displacing semi-permanent contract jobs for locals; “some of our people who used to work day and night shifts in the pack houses are no longer getting hired.”
While there is genuine effort being made to retrain people, the model of horticultural corporates is now more aligned to employing overseas workers, something Tomoana finds disturbing when 13.4% of the unemployed in Hawke’s Bay, over twice the national average, are Māori.
In late 2012, he says NKII nearly invested in a company employing about 1,000 people in peak season, but the deal fell through when they were only prepared to hire a small minority of Māori.
Like other corporates, he says they were only interested in a “robitron workforce” which didn’t allow for flexibility, for example frowning on people taking time off for a tangi (funeral). “There’s no real passion for our region or our people, they treat us like a global town which undermines social cohesion, regional virility and community.”
Work for the willing
Hawke’s Bay has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the country, around 8% compared to the national average of around 6%, and more youth disengaged from the workforce.
Statistic NZ reveals an historical employment lift of 2,000-3,000 in the December and March quarters, dropping back a little for the June quarter and then a significant drop of 4,000-5,000 for the September quarter.
Around 65% of the region’s seasonal labour force requirements are filled by New Zealanders including locals, and semi-retired ‘grey gypsies’ who travel around in vans to drive tractors, work in pack houses or help with harvesting. Another 5% are backpackers and those involved in the Working Holiday Scheme (WHS).
Many work for three months on kiwifruit, citrus or avocado orchards in the Bay of Plenty or Northland, or in forestry, shepherding or fishing before turning up in Hawke’s Bay.
Serious seasonal workers can find at least 6-7 months work, but there’s always a labour deficit which has at times verged on crisis, particularly at harvest time, effectively holding horticulturalists to ransom.
Industry concerns gave rise to a representative lobby group, the Hawke’s Bay Labour Governance Group (HBLGG) in May 2007. The following year, after discussions with various government departments, a case was made for importing workers through the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme (RSES).
Today around 30% of the seasonal workforce in Hawke’s Bay is sourced through the RSES for thinning, harvesting, sorting, packing, processing, pruning and clean-up, mostly for the pipfruit industry.
The majority come from Vanuatu and Samoa and some from Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Kiribass, Tuvalu, and Indonesia. Many are now on their third and fourth season.
It’s imperative to get the numbers right as companies have to guarantee a certain number of hours. If they ask for ten workers and there’s only enough work for six, they end up carrying the cost.
There was a glitch in 2010 when not enough work permits were issued. Part of the solution was to form PickNZ, as a regional job vacancies hub. It processes around 1,500 visitor inquiries a year and assists with IRD numbers, extending WHS visas, RSES work permits and arranging basic training.
The bulk of RSES workers are allocated to larger companies. For example Mr Apple takes around 1,600 and JM Bostock about 240. Employers must demonstrate a close partnership with WINZ and show they’ve gone out of their way to employ Kiwis.
“We’re now getting it pretty well right most years,” says Gary Jones, president of the Hawke’s Bay Labour Governance Group and a Pipfruit NZ executive.
He says Pacific Islanders work side-by-side with Kiwis for the same money, doing the “heavy grunt” including harvesting and packing. “They achieve at least the bin rates of the Kiwis and end up taking home a small fortune; a massive contribution to their village economies, including investment in education, better housing and helping their families.”
“I went into an RSES orchard last year where there were 34 Tongans; 24 of them were earning over $1,000 a week. They were young and fit and those who had come back were getting quicker every year and probably earning more than most Kiwis,” says Jones.
The scheme is credited with a 20% increase in apple production over the past five years, and greater certainty and confidence for orchardists to reinvest in their businesses. There’s also a spin-off with some staying on to assist local vineyards during the pruning season.
Vineyard labour reduced
Xan Harding of HB Winegrowers, who’s also owner-operator at Black Bridge Estate, says only about 100 RSES workers are engaged in the region’s vineyards, half what it was five years ago.
That’s largely because grape growers are becoming more automated, often because of the challenge of finding local people with the right “physical and mental attitude”.
“If the government says people have to turn up for a job interview or we’re cutting your dole, it doesn’t necessarily mean those who turn up actually want the job or are suitable or capable.”
Harding believes the referral process could be improved to eliminate time wasters. “The cold hard reality is the success rate of those turning up is very low for all sorts of reasons, including transport and motivation.”
This results in frustration and futility around the cost of sourcing labour and ultimately staff turnover. “If only one in ten people work out, it’s an inefficient way of running a business.”
Ngāhiwi Tomoana claims some employers get around the RSES requirement by advertising for workers, telling applicants the positions are filled, then advising WINZ they couldn’t find enough Kiwis.
And he’s concerned at the trend of clawing back money paid to migrant workers through charging for accommodation, food and transport. “That’s part of the value to them which you wouldn’t get away with if you employed local people.”
Tomoana says the social wellbeing of the local workforce is effectively being undermined when WINZ ends up paying people to stay at home.
A good start would be offering them the same pastoral care as migrant workers, including skills development, transport to and from work, attention to their spiritual and cultural concerns and other incentives.
He suggests there’s room for another agency between WINZ and whānau (families), for example Taiwhenua o Heretaunga, where they speak Māori, and can help train and prepare people for the workforce. “It’s an indictment that Māori aren’t full participants in the local economy.”
Last year he says New Zealand, and Hawke’s Bay in particular, created a $15 million boom for the Vanuatu economy through seasonal employment. “That’s money that hasn’t gone into the HB economy.”
According to John Bostock, owner of the JM Bostock group of companies, it’s “catch up time” for the industry, with employers needing to take responsibility for growing jobs and developing local people to fill them.
He reckons the horticultural labour mismatch first reared its head when industry growth outpaced the availability of casual workers at a time many local workers no longer wished to engage.
Bostock suggests Hawke’s Bay employers were irresponsible and the way they handled things contributed to a range of social problems.
Traditionally huge numbers were hired for the freezing works, tomato picking for Watties and in the pipfruit, stonefruit and wine industry “then they were fired and we wondered why a whole group were no longer interested in doing seasonal work?”
He says the need for stability was underestimated. Rather than a peak that reduces to nothing, preventing people from buying a house, paying a mortgage or even the rent, workers need “continuous employment that’s not interrupted by rain, changes in the market and seasonal factors.”
While a number of employers already cull the best locals from the seasonal pool for permanent work, Bostock says we need a stronger focus on “getting hard core unemployed motivated, trained and back into the system”.
In fact, he suggests growers owe it to the local economy “in return for the privilege of having the RSES workers when we need them”.
He’s critical of many courses that fail to deliver suitable candidates for the industry, including those run by government departments. “There have been too many bullshit courses where the trainers make their money and tick the boxes to get ongoing funding, even when people don’t turn up.”
EIT training partnerships
Bostock’s company is in partnership with EIT, WINZ and local iwi, running orchard-based training; 10 out of 15 candidates graduated from the first 20-week, level one and two horticultural course, in mid-February.
They learned basic work ethics and theoretical and practical training alongside Bostock employees, enabling most to step straight into full- and part-time positions on orchards, including pruning, mowing, spraying, plant husbandry or seasonal work.
EIT regional tutor Erin Simpson says in the past the institute ran courses it thought the industry needed. “Now employers are helping to run these based on their specific needs … The idea is to provide a whole skillset so workers can be employed all year round.”
Simpson, who’s also head of recruitment and training at Mr Apple’s Waipawa plant, says the course mainly focused on long-term unemployed, with a mix of youth, middle-aged and older people proving a good balance, particularly in “helping the younger ones into a good routine”.
John Bostock, employs over 500 people in his orchards, farms, fields, pack houses and offices during peak season, and was recruiting candidates for the 2014 EIT course as BayBuzz went to press. “I have positions that need filling all the time.”
Now he’s throwing down the gauntlet to other employers. “We want to match the RSES numbers with an equal number of full-time local jobs.” It’s believed Mr Apple and Apollo Apples are likely to run courses this year.
“If 20-30 employers get their mindset around this, we could make a real difference over ten years by training people from a dysfunctional situation into a functional situation,” says Bostock.
To that end the Hawke’s Bay Labour Governance Group continues to invest in a range of programmes, including case studies and advice for schools to highlight career opportunities in growing, packing, exporting and logistics.
Many motivated locals are already picking in orchards and taking second jobs in the field or packing houses, but those aren’t the kind of jobs the industry or even WINZ are focused on. Much of the effort is on finding the best people amongst part-timers to get qualified for full-time work.
The talk at the moment is about boomtime for horticulture and viticulture, which will increase the demand for full-time and seasonal labour and add fuel to the perennial debate about moving locals from the dole queue to the work queue.
So what about the cliché that Māori in particular can’t be bothered? “That’s bullshit. We’ve been hearing that all our lives … that’s putting us down,” says Ngāhiwi Tomoana.
He says the infrastructure of Hawke’s Bay was built on the back of Mäori workers. “I came from a generation of full employment … you could name the people on one hand who were unemployed. The whole region did well.”
Ideally Tomoana wants to see more seasonal jobs allocated to locals, but that will require more effort put into training and education system outputs. “It an evolving thing since the days of Rogernomics when thousands of our people were tipped out of jobs … we’re still lurching to find our feet again but it will happen.”
He says it’s going to take people like John Bostock to change things, and gives an assurance that Ngäti Kahungunu will work alongside and promote any employers that “upskill and train Mäori and put Hawke’s Bay first”.
Ethical trade relations
Meanwhile the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme continues to be lauded as world-class, ethical and good for the country. Hawke’s Bay Labour Governance Group president Gary Jones insists it’s one of the best migratory labour and trade programmes in the world.
He says the industry and government partnership works for all parties and is intimately linked to ethical production methods, with huge global expectations around our social practices with migratory workers.
A lot of the RSES employers grow, pack and export to high-end supermarkets. “Tesco for example comes out here and often asks to have private meetings with pickers. They’ve been very impressed.”
Jones says, if they found their New Zealand suppliers were treating workers badly or underpaying Pacific Islanders “our apples would be gone from their shelves the next day”.
He insists there are strong commercial reasons to get it right; to that end the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) monitor the system closely, including “accommodation, pastoral care, religious needs and ensuring everyone’s looked after”.
A cultural imbalance
While critics slam the use of imported seasonal workers as cheap labour, there are no indications they’re paid any differently or face different work conditions than Kiwis; only that they’re at least as capable and in some cases more productive.
John Bostock says most in the horticultural sector want to do the right thing, especially when the economic drivers line up. “The penny has dropped and there’s now a real awareness that we’ve got to do a whole lot better in Hawke’s Bay.”
He’s amazed the region remains at the bottom of employment, economic and social statistics. “That’s pretty sobering; the fact we haven’t been working as a whole community is why I’m so pro-amalgamation … This is a critical time for getting the model right.”
That means abandoning silo thinking and working regionally to ramp up the performance of horticulture as “the economic engine of Hawke’s Bay”.
Meanwhile the labour force dilemma is likely to remain unless more RSES-style incentives are provided for locals, including training and career options that go well beyond the mechanics of part-time picking and packing.