RSE report labelled ‘gut-wrenching’

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A report questioning the economic value of recognised seasonal employer workers to the horticulture and viticulture sectors has angered industry leaders and growers alike.

New Zealand Apples and Pears chief executive Allan Pollard was in Central Otago when the report, ‘‘Picking Cherries’’, carried out by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) for the Productivity Commission was released last week.

A draft version of the report had been flagged by New Zealand Apples and Pears in December for raising points — such as about the economic value of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers from the Pacific — the organisation felt needed to be challenged.

Mr Pollard said the draft prompted his organisation to meet the commission to express concerns.

However, those concerns had not been reflected in the report released.

‘‘It’s a pity the NZIER don’t leave their offices.

‘‘It still says they [RSE workers] are low-skilled, low value migrant workers.’’

The labour of RSE workers had spinoffs for the wider economy in terms of productivity, right through the volumes of fruit harvested for export, he said.

‘‘They [RSE workers] are highly skilled, highly productive, and do the jobs New Zealanders can’t, and won’t, do.’’

The mood among Central Otago growers was ‘‘pretty sombre’’ following a season beset by labour shortages, and the report had struck a nerve.

‘‘Rather than expanding our workforce, which is not there anyway, this serves the opposite effect and it almost points the finger at the growers themselves — everyone is really disappointed.

‘‘It’s gut-wrenching.’’

The NZIER report says there is no proof that a large influx of short-term migration to fill labour gaps, including the workers who come from the Pacific each year, contributes to increasing New Zealand’s productivity.

It also presents evidence that there are net negatives to such visa schemes.

The report states there is scant evidence available for the known effects so far of seasonal, temporary migrant workers on the economy, particularly horticulture.

Many in the horticulture and viticulture sectors have claimed RSE and migrant workers are vital, and without them fruit and produce would be left to rot, but employers needed to think of more innovative ways to pick fruit that involved more capital, and more technology to reduce the need for physical labour, the report says.

However, it acknowledges technical challenges prevented the study separately identifying the implications of working holidaymakers and RSE workers.

The RSE scheme began in 2007 and allows horticulture and viticulture employers to provide seasonal jobs for workers from some Pacific nations. It has since grown from 5000 workers a year to more than 14,000.