Concern at lack of workers mounts

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The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) says it is working to recruit workers to the horticulture and viticulture sectors, amid allegations of little movement on Central Otago’s orchards and vineyards.

Seasonal worker shortages, an annual problem, have become a crisis due to border closures because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the region’s viticulturists and horticulturists have described 11th-hour worker no-shows and walkouts as the season begins.

MSD southern regional commissioner for social development Jason Tibble said the agency acknowledged the concerns raised as seasonal labour peaks neared.

The industry was the leader in finding workers and developing a future sustainable workforce, but MSD wanted businesses and jobseekers to know it was responding and could help.

That response included referring registered job seekers to vacancies and having a work broker focused solely on recruitment for seasonal work.

‘‘We are also co-funding a seasonal employment coordinator in Central Otago to assist with marketing employment opportunities.

‘‘To further promote these positions, we have created a regional page on the Work the Seasons website showcasing initiatives like the ‘Work, Play and Stay’ campaign, which aimed to help students into summer fruit jobs.’’

MSD was well connected with partner agencies and members of its labour market team were active members of the Central Otago labour market governance group.

The group discussed labour shortages at a strategic level and had generated initiatives that were ‘‘in the pipeline’’ to help fill any labour gaps with workers from around the country, he said.

The team also participated in discussions with Summerfruit New Zealand, Horticulture New Zealand, Immigration and the Ministry of Primary Industries to address issues and identify employment opportunities.

Initiatives such as discounted camper van hire and worker buses from main centres were being discussed, Mr Tibble said.

Alexandra-based industry recruiter Seasonal Solutions chief executive Helen Axby said despite soothing noises from MSD and other Government agencies, the problem was still acute.

‘‘I think everyone who is involved has been putting the case to [Government] ministers
— industry groups, ourselves, and individual growers.

‘‘We are working with a number of agencies, including MSD.’’

The biggest void was that left by backpackers, she said.

‘‘What we are actually lacking to do is to replace our usual cohort of backpackers on working holiday visas — it’s gone from 70,000 to somewhere in the region of 11,000.

The sectors were also feeling the loss of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) scheme workers, only 120 of them remaining in the district, Ms Axby said.

‘‘They will be sorely missed because they are skilled. I think there is a level of resignation among the growers that to do the actual harvest they will have to get through that without the RSE workers.’’

That left agencies such MSD to find solutions.

MSD’s Work the Seasons website was established in 2018 and was designed to make it easier for seasonal workers to find the job and for employers to find the right person.

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