Fruit Picking Incentive Attracts Less than Expected

An incentive scheme intended to attract unemployed people to plug the worker shortage in the horticulture sector by offering a $1000 incentive payment had attracted just 339 people as of April 16.

Approximately 15,000 workers from the islands normally come each year to pick fruit and carry out other orchard or packing work, the shortage is due to border closures, preventing Pacific Island workers from entering the country.

The Ministry for Social Development seasonal work scheme, which offered up to $200 a week for accommodation costs and a $1000 incentive payment for workers who completed jobs of six weeks or longer, was launched late last year. By early March only 87 people had signed up for the scheme.

Despite this, nearly 5000 people have stopped their benefit since November to go into seasonal work, according to MSD’s group general manager of employment, Jayne Russell.

“While it’s very pleasing to see job seekers proactively taking up seasonal work without support from MSD, it’s also encouraging that more people have been able to take advantage of the incentives offered through the [scheme], such as travel, clothing and work gear and accommodation assistance.”

People must have at least six weeks of work to be eligible and the physical nature of the work meant it was not suitable for everyone. Russell explained that other barriers included family commitments or lack of accommodation and transport, which made relocating for a short period difficult.

The 336 figure was likely to be an underestimate because not everyone coming off a benefit to go into seasonal work would have been coded that way, the ministry noted.

“I know it was quite disappointing, the numbers of people that came in from out of the region, but a number did. The key learning from industry is that it’s not actually that simple to ask people to pick up and move their lives to another place. Often they're paying rent in another city and they can't just stop,” commented Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association president Richard Pentreath, adding that the industry would probably change its approach to attracting workers next season. Pay rates would probably be competitive and more flexible hours were likely to be offered.

In order to attract the limited labour force, growers have had to pay more for this year’s harvest. Some of that would not be sustainable – some people had paid more than they could afford this season to get the harvest done, continued Pentreath.

The other knock-on effect would be a retraction in the size of crops. Bigger growers were already putting development block plans on hold and there would be less spending on things like tractors and packhouses.

Overseas workers enabled growers to expand their operations, which led to job creation for New Zealanders. For the Government to assume those jobs could be easily given to locals was short-sighted, said Pentreath.

“There doesn't seem to have been an acknowledgement [from Government] that it hasn't worked and hundreds of workers haven't come out of the woodwork. The whole border thing could have been done differently.”