Ministers firm about RSE numbers

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This season’s fruit and grape harvest has teetered on a knife edge, but there are positive signs.

Progress is being made in addressing labour shortages in Central Otago, but the takeaway message for Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi and Social Development and Employment Minister Carmel Sepuloni after visiting the region last week was the problem was not gone.

The ministers visited the CAJ Hollandia orchard at Blackmans, near Alexandra, to meet limited service volunteer (LSV) workers, and the headquarters of large-scale seasonal worker recruitment agency Seasonal Solutions.

Before the ministers arrived, orchardists and industry leaders said measures implemented had taken some of the pressure off, but concerns remained for the apple and pear harvest when students returned to studies.

Mr Faafoi said after meeting Seasonal Solutions managers, what the Government had not done was agree to the number of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) scheme workers the industry had lobbied to bring into New Zealand.

The 2000 RSE workers from Pacific nations allowed into New Zealand from January was ‘‘certainly not the number’’ the sector wanted, he said.

‘‘Over time, if there is still a shortage, we will have conversation — without any guarantees — about whether or not there is any ability to bring any more people in.’’

When asked what the sector wanted, Mr Faafoi said he thought it was about 3500.

Usually, there were about 14,500 RSE workers in the country, and the current number sat about 6000.

‘‘Allowing the 2000 in early, in the new year, would get us to about 8000. Obviously, that’s well short.’’

Ms Sepuloni said the purpose of the visit was to get ‘‘a taste of what is happening on the ground’’.

She and Mr Faafoi had been working alongside Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor to achieve cohesion in how to address seasonal worker shortages.

That included getting domestic workers into horticulture and viticulture.

Ms Sepuloni said it needed to be kept in mind there were some barriers to getting into the work.

They included geography, transport and fitness requirements, and industry representatives had said apple picking at the peak of the season required a ‘‘couple of years of experience’’ to do it as well as RSE workers.

When pressed about tardiness on the part of orchardists in terms of dealing with job inquiries, Ms Sepuloni said additional resources were being put in place by the Ministry of Social Development and the industry to deal with applications.

Summerfruit NZ chief executive Richard Palmer said in a statement the industry wanted to thank New Zealand for its response to calls for help with this season’s harvest, and only briefly alluded to problems with recruitment processes.

It was expected the appointment of Tracey Mansfield to the new Central Otago seasonal labour coordinator role would help smooth the fluctuations in demand for workers, as she would connect employers with potential employees and help attract and retain seasonal workers to the region for the summerfruit and subsequent apple, pear and grape harvests.

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