A horticultural disaster is looming as a lack of vital workers threatens the region’s $2billion wine industry.
Imported workers under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme are in short supply, with less than half of the potential 14,400 workers currently in the country.
And one employer is warning the situation will only get worse.
Seasonal Solutions chief executive Helen Axby says the ideal solution would be a travel bubble with Vanuatu.
“There’s been a shortage of labour and there’s going to be a shortage of labour.
“A lot of places where RSE staff come from are Covid free,” Helen says.
RSE workers who are currently outside of New Zealand are not allowed in until Covid border restrictions are lifted.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) general manager border and visa operations Nicola Hogg says there are about 1700 RSE workers in Marlborough, with the number is likely to change as workers move around the country.
But Helen says that number will drop.
“For our RSE staff we made the decision to charter an aircraft two weeks ago – that took 340-odd home.
“Not because we don’t need them for work – but we feared for their mental health.
“They’ve been stranded here.”
About 3000 workers are needed to complete the harvest and pruning – and there are not enough Kiwis to fill the shortfall.
“One RSE worker is worth one and a half other workers, at least,” Helen says.
“Some of them have eight or nine years experience.
“They think it’s going to be a little easier to recruit Kiwis, but there won’t be enough.”
In August, the government extended RSE visas by six months for those still in New Zealand and unable to return home.
“This allows RSE workers with visa expiry dates between 18 August and 31 December 2020 to stay and work in New Zealand,” Nicola says.
“This visa extension gives approximately 6,700 RSE workers still in New Zealand, and their employers, more certainty about worker availability for the coming season.”
She says the RSE worker cap of 14,400 will not be increased this year as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month the government also announced that around 11,000 Working Holiday Scheme visa holders who are in New Zealand, with visas expiring between November 2020 and March 2021, will be automatically granted Supplementary Seasonal Employment (SSE) visas.
“This allows them to work until 30 June 2021 in horticulture and viticulture seasonal roles where there are not enough New Zealanders available to do the work,” Nicola says.
“Immigration New Zealand (INZ) recognises the impact that COVID-19 continues to have on businesses and migrants and their loved ones.”
Helen says the critical issue will come next winter.
“This is when staff demand is at its height.
“It will become a critical issue.”
She says the industry won’t have the luxury to utilise staff stuck in New Zealand come next pruning season.
“Next year’s pruning will come up us much sooner than we expect.”
Helen says in a perfect world, the government would recognise Covid-free countries.
“These guys [RSE workers] are very experienced in Covid-19 because they have lived and worked through a level 4 lockdown,” she says.
“They’ve travelled between regions with all the special permissions.
“On returning home, they’ve done a 14-day quarantine.
“They have a lot of experience looking after themselves and remaining Covid-free.
“A bubble with Vanuatu would be the ideal situation.”