As the apple industry faces a labour crisis, there is a lot of talk about technology playing a role in harvesting crops.
Apples and Pears NZ chief executive Alan Pollard told Rural News that the main reason for this is the decision by the Government not to grant the numbers of overseas workers required under the RSE (recognised seasonal employer) scheme to meet the needs of the sector.
RSE workers normally come from South Pacific countries including Samoa and Vanuatu and are employed in picking both fruit and vegetable crops.
Pollard says the lack of labour is a risk for the industry. He says it’s great that Trade Minister David Parker is going around the world negotiating quality free trade agreements (FTA’s) for NZ.
“But if we are unable to pick the fruit on our trees and sell it in these new developing markets, our competitors will do that and we will never get into these markets again.”
Pollard says the Government announced an increase in the cap of RSE workers of 1550 for this season, with a further increase next year lifting the cap to 1600. However, he points out that the industry collectively asked for 3500 workers this year alone.
Pollard says they are now down to 40% of what they’d asked for, meaning that they won’t get all the fruit off the trees this year.
“Up to 10% of the crop could be lost because of labour shortages. Once a piece of fruit is mature you have got to pick it. You can’t leave it on the tree.”
Pollard says to some extent the industry is a victim of its own success because the unemployment rate is very low in the provinces. He says some of that is because orchardists have taken on a lot more permanent staff and access by unemployed people is severely limited.
“We have really good relationships with Work and Income and MSD to find us people, but the people are not there and labour is an issue,” he told Rural News.
“This season a number of regions will be declaring labour shortages.”
According to Pollard, the industry has been asked by the Government to address a number of key issues, eg the removal of exploitation from the supply chain, making sure there is high quality accommodation that is not taking away accommodation from locals. That means building housing for workers on orchards.
“We have demonstrated that we are meeting those challenges. In Hawkes Bay alone $30 million has been invested in new accommodation resulting in the provision of 1750 new beds on orchards for the 2019-20 season,” he said. “As far as the industry is concerned, the situation is totally unacceptable.”
Pollard says it’s too late to do anything to change the situation for the coming season.