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Latest News / RSE Conference Summary – NZKGI CEO Colin Bond

RSE Conference Summary – NZKGI CEO Colin Bond

NZKGI staff, along with a number of representatives from our kiwifruit grower and post-harvest community attended the RSE Conference in Nelson last month. The organisers constructed an excellent agenda over two days which included sessions with Minister Faafoi and Minister Sepoloni.  The Ministry of Social Development provided an update on programmes available to get New Zealanders into seasonal and permanent work in horticulture. (More information about these programmes will be provided in future Weekly Updates.)  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided an update on COVID-19 in the Pacific. There was good discussion about immigration settings and the benefit of the RSE scheme, for both New Zealand and the Pacific.

The highlight of the conference was a performance from the Tongan RSE workers during dinner on day one. Their performance reflected all that is positive about the connection the RSE scheme allows us to make with our pacific neighbours.

My key takeaways – the mood was sombre, the tight labour market will continue for years, the worst effects of COVID-19 on orchard may yet be in front of us.

The Level 4 lockdown last year was challenging for us all. But with hindsight, we now know that closed borders also meant we had a comparatively high number of RSE and backpackers. We didn’t have all the RSE workers we wanted, but we had a majority. More importantly, when COVID-19 first hit, we had over 40,000 backpackers (working holiday visa holders and seasonal skills visa holders) in the country. That and the fact that other businesses had closed their doors and so we were able to welcome workers, including kiwis, from other industries.

This year, all the kiwifruit was picked again. But backpacker numbers had fallen to below 10,000 nationwide by the end of the season, RSE numbers were well short of horticulture’s 14,400 cap and with a move back to Level 1, we now compete more heavily with other industries for labour who were previously not considered an Essential Business. Yes, all the kiwifruit was picked, but there was a lot of pressure on our people. Such a situation is unsustainable.

In 2022 we estimate that the kiwifruit industry will require 24,000 seasonal workers. Historically 25% of those workers have been backpackers and a further 17% RSE. Even with a change to border settings, it is unlikely that this workforce will be available to the extent it has been in the past.

NZKGI, in conjunction with the wider horticulture sector, continues to lobby government for change to border settings. As a minimum, we want to get to the cap of 14,400 RSE workers.  While our negotiations have made progress, we continue to be reminded that this is a health led crisis. We only have to look as far as Australia and Fiji to see that situations involving borders can change in an instant. In reality, RSE workers alone cannot solve our labour crisis. The hole left by backpackers is significant and it could take years to get numbers back to pre-COVID-19 levels.

What more can be done?

Take care of yourselves, and your neighbours.  This too shall pass and we want everyone with us on the other side.

Employers should recognise that competition for labour is fierce. NZKGI will continue to work with you, and for you, to attract employees to the sector. Once attracted, employers need to give those employees the best possible experience so they want to say with us and become advocates for our industry.

Lastly, we need to be cognisant of the dire state of the labour market when making decisions about setting our orchards up for next season. There should be no prizes for growing records crops during a labour crisis.

Take care.