Orchardists seek more Pacific Islanders

Nelson orchardists will employ more Pacific Islanders to pick and pack their crop this season, partly because they cannot get enough reliable Kiwi workers despite higher unemployment.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has approved increases for each month in the year to June next year, with the numbers brought in under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme ranging from 64 in Sep tember to 923 in March and April when harvesting is at its height.

That is 47 more in each of those two peak months than the previous season.

Nationally, almost 5400 RSE workers have been approved for March.

RSE Nelson chairman Paul Heywood said the 23 growers in the scheme sought more workers from the Pacific because they expected to harvest a bigger crop this year and production overall was increasing.

There was also more work outside the peak period as growers converted or grafted over their orchards to new varieties and growing systems.

''So there is a higher requirement of casual staff throughout a large part of the year.''

They had not got as many RSE workers as they asked for, but were hopeful of a further increase next season, he said.

Another factor was that, despite the cost of bringing them into the country, Pacific Islanders were more productive and reliable, particular those who returned year after year, Mr Heywood said.

This was crucial at harvest, when crops had to be picked on time  to give grow ers the best chance of max imising returns in what was still a tough economic climate.

It had become obvious that New Zealanders and visiting backpackers preferred to do packhouse work rather than more physically demanding work in the orchard.

''They just don't want to pick apples. Therefore we are very dependent on RSE workers at harvest time.''

However, as part of a ''New Zealanders first'' policy, Nelson growers employed a mix, which included locals in permanent or part-time roles and students at busy times, Mr Heywood said.

Unemployment in Nelson was also among the lowest in the country, so there was a smaller pool to draw from.

Most RSE growers were exceeding the minimum requirement of 5 per cent of their workforce coming from previously unemployed people referred to them by Work and Income, he said.

This was despite many of these people not staying long in the job and often lacking reliability or a solid work ethic, he said.

''Work and Income referrals are not stable and to rely on them would be precarious to say the least when we need surety to harvest the crop on time.''

Employers would be monitoring more closely their performance and passing the information on to the department.

''It's an inherent problem that growers have to live with but, to ensure we are able to obtain the number of RSE workers that we want we have to fulfil our obligation to Work and Income, so it is a balancing act and a political reality we have to recognise.

''We do recognise the unemployment situation and we are fulfilling our obligation with Work and Income.

''I think we are doing well.''

 Motueka Fruitgrowers Asso ciation chairman Simon Easton agreed, saying Work and Income referrals usually found work such as thinning too tough and did not last.

''They are here today and gone tomorrow. I asked for 10 this season, got three or four and all of them have gone.''

However, there were enough other Kiwi students and foreigners were around to fill any gaps, he said.

Work and Income regional labour market manager Gary Gatward-Smith said the department did not know how long the people it placed in work lasted and they changed jobs for several reasons, but placements were up 32 per cent to 103 in the five months to the end of November this year.

Much of this increase was in the Waimea rather than Motueka, where there was a smaller pool of labour as a result of a 31 per cent fall in the number of people on the unemployment benefit this Sep tember compared  with last year, he said.

Overall, unemployment in the top of the south and the West Coast was 4.5 per cent in Sep tember, up from 3.9 per cent last year.

The higher level of placements reflected increased willingness by employers to give the local unemployed opportunities, he said.

''Feedback we have had from employers has been mostly positive and the increased results show that we are working closely with each other.''

Mr Gatward-Smith the department did screen jobseekers for seasonal roles and explained that orchard work required physical fitness and that orchardists wanted enthusiastic and hard-working people.

The work included apple pruning and thinning, hop training, kiwifruit thinning and flower picking and grape thinning and wire-lifting.

''Our clients say transport is their biggest hurdle to doing seasonal work.

''In the past some employers provided transport, but this now seems to happen less these days and that can be a barrier.''

Work and Income wanted local people to fill local jobs, but could go outside the region to promote orchard work if there was a shortage of suitable people, he said.

People wanting harvest work should approach employers now.