Kiwifruit industry providing employment for laid off kaimahi

By James Perry
Kiwifruit vines and fruit. Source/Wikipedia

As the Kiwifruit industry moves into harvesting season, finding workers to fill vacancies usually occupied by foreign seasonal workers is proving to be a challenge and an opportunity.

With COVID-19 affecting many industries one of the largest Māori Kiwifruit growers is reaching out to workers who are currently unemployed and looking for work.

Ratahi Cross, chairman of Ngāi Tūkairangi and Te Awanui Huka Pak says the impact on many countries around the world including New Zealand closing their borders has meant they haven’t been able to secure workers under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, however, he does support the move by the government.

“What our country's concern about people coming into New Zealand I support that but it does make it difficult for the industry.

"We've been working very hard in the industry in trying to get more support from people who have been laid off because of Covid Virus, trying to say hey, we've got work here for you, come along and join our industry,” he says.

They’re reaching out to people from other industries who have been severely hampered by the COVID-19 outbreak around the world, particularly those that have transferable skills.

The challenge for the industry is making sure that the new employees in either the orchards or the packhouses are given the right training to operate machinery without slowing down the timeframes.

“So a forklift driver who has the appropriate tickets, [and] maybe laid off in the fishing industry, we could pick them up and bring them across to our industry.

“It's finding the right people for the right jobs or near enough to the right jobs that we need them in.”

Another challenge is also protecting staff members against the disease that is sweeping across the country, such as social distancing. But it’s a necessary step in order to keep their crops getting to market across the country and the world.

“You don't skimp when it comes to people's safety!” Cross said.

They’re ensuring their staff keep to the 2 metre rule, and have installed screens in the pack house to limit the spread of the virus.

With the added protection for staff, and having to train people to be careful of each other, Cross says some in the Kiwifruit industry could see endure down turn of as much as 40%.

“We've had to slow down. It hasn't been a perfect start, but people have got to get used to not working next to each other, not being able to have that morning chat with the guy next door, or the girl next door it's not there, it's not available,” Cross says.

Kiwifruit has been a boom crop over the past decade, and is predicted to contribute $6 billion to the NZ economy by 2030. It’s rich source of Vitamin C, Cross says, is big reason for that.

“The fruit and it's healthy attributes speaks for itself. And really I'm quite proud of our fruit, I'm quite proud that it can do something to help.

The Kiwifruit industry has also proven its' resilience in the past, when it badly affected by the PSA-V virus through much of the 2010’s.

“We came together as an industry, we came together to look for ways of recovering from that time and we'll do it again this time,” he says.

Cross says the Tauranga based trust, one of the largest Māori owned kiwifruit growers, has ventured beyond the region trying to entice workers looking for work as a result of COVID-19.

“We've been across to Rotorua to look at people who've been laid off in the tourism industry, probably the hardest hit industry.”

They’ve investigated putting on transport to get the across to Tauranga, but doing so within the regulations of inter-region travel.

“It's a complicated process, and I think that it has impacted us but we're trying our best.

“And I know some growers have looked in Gisborne where the forestry is and see if we can pick up some forestry gangs.

“I think there are people available but accommodating them is one of the most difficult things to do.

“It makes it more sense in Tauranga, in the Bay of Plenty to extract as many employees who are needing work, say the Rotorua area, the Tūhoe area in the back of Whakatāne there getting the employees from there,” Ratahi Cross says.