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(l-r): Labour candidate Anna Lorck, Napier MP Stuart Nash, New Zealand finance minister Grant Robertson and Paul Paynter from Yummy Fruit company 

New Zealand finance minister, Grant Robertson, travelled to Hawke’s Bay earlier this week to discuss challenges facing the region’s fresh produce sector.

The main item on the agenda was a looming labour shortage for the upcoming stonefruit and apple harvests.

“With backpackers and Pacific seasonal workers down by 50,000, the industry is facing an incredibly difficult task across New Zealand this season,” said Alan Pollard, chief executive of New Zealand Apples and Pears (NZAPI).

To help address the labour shortage, NZAPI has developed an extensive range of programmes to attract New Zealanders into orchard work. However, Pollard said local workers alone would not fill the labour gap.

“The industry acknowledges its responsibility to do all it can to create opportunities for New Zealanders to access seasonal work. But during the peak of harvest it will still not be enough and our industries will need more help,” he explained.

Pollard urged the government to consider allowing workers from Covid-free Pacific Island countries to be allowed back into New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

“Countries such as Tonga and Samoa have never had a Covid case,” Pollard said. “It makes sense to be very cautious, of course, but if we are ever going to extend our bubble,­ this is the perfect opportunity.”

The New Zealand government recently extended RSE visas for those workers stranded in New Zealand.

Pollard said there was currently 22,000 RSE visa holders in New Zealand. Over recent years there have been as many as 45,000 RSE workers at the time of harvest.

Pollard said Robertson acknowledged the labour challenge during his visit, along with the importance of providing early certainty around labour supply.

“Minister Robertson has committed to respond to us in the next two to three weeks with an update on the support that cabinet can provide, and we are confident that we can agree on solutions that satisfy our respective priorities,” Pollard explained.

“We got the sense the government will support our industries and the very important part we will all play in our economic recovery.”