Nod sought for harvest labour

LAURA BASHAM
Last updated 12:00 19/07/2014

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Growers want to bring in 10,000 seasonal workers a year and expect to hear in the coming week if they will be able to.

They hope Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse will give the go-ahead when he speaks at the annual Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Conference in Wellington on Tuesday.

However, the Nelson Seasonal Employers Association chairman, Paul Heywood, doubts the increase will be allowed, saying it is a delicate political issue.

The RSE scheme now has a cap of 8000 workers over a year but the horticulture and viticulture industries want 2000 more. At the peak of the harvest season in April there were 6000 RSE workers in New Zealand, 950 of them in Nelson mostly involved in apples, said Pipfruit NZ business development manager Gary Jones.

Overall about 4200, or 70 per cent, were working in apples, out of 16,000 employed in the pipfruit industry at that time, he said.

Pressure has been put on the Government to increase the number of Pacific workers who can come here.

On a visit to Samoa last month Prime Minister John Key said an increase was possible and acknowledged there were calls from employers to increase the quota.

Cabinet wanted to be sure that every effort had been made to recruit local workers first. Woodhouse had been asked to do more work on a possible increase.

Jones said the cap had been reached for RSE workers and it was essential as the industry grew that the Government lifted it to 10,000.

The RSE scheme underpinned the growth and security of the valuable industry, and 10,000 was a logical number that would be adequate for the next two years.

The kiwifruit industry would have significant growth, viticulture was regearing and the pipfruit sector was also expecting growth, he said.

Heywood, who will attend the RSE conference, said "I'm not confident at all that the minister will allow it because it's a political issue. There is a misunderstanding that it is at the expense of New Zealanders.

"Here in Nelson we have a very effective system through Work and Income where we employ New Zealanders first before we need to bring in additional people for the peak periods."

Nelson employers had indicated that for the coming season overall the increase needed would be small, he said.

Pipfruit growers will hold their annual conference next month in Havelock North, and Jones said it would be a "steady as you go" approach focusing on growth markets and continued access over competitors.

Pipfruit returns up to the end of May were 10 per cent higher than last year, driven by strong demand in Asia, he said. That was 30 per cent higher than in 2012.

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The European and British market was challenging, and with fresh domestic fruit about to arrive importers were working to finish their programmes.

Volumes were down about 5 per cent on last year's 322,000 tonnes.

The 2013 crop was about 18 million cases and this year would finish at about 17 million but next year's would push close to 19 million.

"We're expecting growth through to 2022, driven by the Asian economy and their desire for New Zealand fruit which is premium and seen as extremely safe," he said.

In some cases desirable rootstock was booked up three or four years ahead.

- The Nelson Mail

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