Marlborough wine industry needs more workers to sustain rapid growth

A group of 80 Thai RSE workers, employed by Vinepower Ltd, gearing up to pick grapes in a Marlborough vineyard.
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

A group of 80 Thai RSE workers, employed by Vinepower Ltd, gearing up to pick grapes in a Marlborough vineyard.

More labour and accommodation is needed to service the Marlborough wine industry, which is predicted to grow by a quarter over the next five years, a new report shows.

The Marlborough Labour Market Survey, released on Monday, was organised by Wine Marlborough, in collaboration with New Zealand Winegrowers, the Marlborough District Council and Seasonal Solutions Co-operative Limited.

The purpose of the report, the first of its kind, is to get a comprehensive picture of the wine industry and its plans moving forward, to be able to plan for future labour requirements.

Vineyard land in Marlborough is predicted to increase by 24 per cent by 2020.
JOHN COWIE/FAIRFAX NZ

Vineyard land in Marlborough is predicted to increase by 24 per cent by 2020.

There are 23,619 hectares of grapes in the region.

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Based on interviews with wine companies, this is predicted to increase by 24 per cent, to 29,270 hectares by 2020.

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said most people in the Marlborough wine industry would not be surprised by the figure.

"If it were to happen anywhere else in New Zealand though, people would be aghast," he said.

The increase in plantings, which was being undertaken almost exclusively by large wine companies, showed how much confidence there was in Marlborough wine, Pickens said.

Earlier this year, New Zealand wine exports reached $1.54 billion.

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The report estimated Marlborough wines made up around $1.2 billion of total exports, which was good for the region, but the expansion also presented a number of challenges.

The biggest of these was securing enough labour to meet demand.

There were 8325 vineyard workers in Marlborough, made up of a mixture of Recognised Seasonal Employer workers, casual and permanent workers.

Pickens said this was enough to meet demand, but many workers had to work long hours and he felt this was not sustainable in the long-term.

Demand for workers was predicted to increase by 24 per cent, to 10,304, by the 2019/20 season.

The most notable increase was the demand for more RSE workers, who were praised by both the wine companies and contractors in the report.

This season, there was 1669 winter RSE workers and 889 summer RSE workers.

By the 2019/20 season, there would be demand for 2269 winter RSE workers and 1195 summer RSE workers, the report said.

This would require an increase in the national RSE scheme cap, which was raised to 9500 last year.

Pickens said the evidence presented in the report was overwhelming, that wine companies and contractors clearly felt they needed more RSE workers to fulfil their labour requirements.

Kaikoura MP Stuart Smith said he supported raising the cap.

Labour contractors and wine companies tried to hire New Zealanders but many did not want to work in the wine industry, which was a great pity, especially for those that were unemployed, he said.

The gaps in the labour market were met by RSE workers, who did a fantastic job and it also benefited their communities back home, he said.

Immigration New Zealand manager George Rarere said when the scheme started in 2007 the cap was set at 5000 workers, which had since increased to 9500.

Any decision to raise the cap needed to be made by Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, however the RSE scheme was premised on giving New Zealanders first priority for work, he said.

"There is an expectation placed on employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries that they do not become overly reliant on RSE workers as a long-term solution to their employment needs."

Some wine companies and contractors in the report said they would not be in business without RSE workers.

The wine industry would always have the issue of seasonal peaks, and because the work was temporary it was often hard to convince New Zealanders to move to the region, Pickens said.

Finding young, skilled workers was also identified as an issue and Pickens said there was a perception there were no opportunities in the industry for young people.

They saw the industry as picking, planting and plucking, he said.

"But for New Zealanders who want to get on board, the opportunities are endless, there are jobs for life."

Pickens said he did not think finding enough labour would be a problem, but it was important the wine industry attracted the right kind of people.

"You can get labour from anywhere, but we want people that are fairly treated, paid well and encouraged to stay in the industry," he said.

It was also important that people who came to the region were given proper accommodation and had accesss to health care and other services.

Challenges identified by the report:

  • To meet the increased demand for community and social services
  • To ensure sufficient and quality accommodation for workers and encourage the development of purpose-built managed facilities

  • To recognise the importance of good pastoral care for all workers

  • To encourage young New Zealanders into permanent roles in the industry

  • To successfully engage New Zealand Jobseekers into ongoing employment

  • To ensure an increase in supply of RSE workers to match demand

  • The need for the industry to communicate effectively with the Marlborough community

  • To ensure there is adequate access to first line medical services for workers

  • To continue to present Marlborough as an attractive place to live and work

  • For the industry, community, local and central government to work collaboratively to plan for this growth

 - The Marlborough Express

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