Headaches for wine industry's 2021 harvest as Covid-19 keeps skilled foreign workforce out

Our multi-billion dollar wine industry is staring at a coming harvest without the critical workforce to make it a success.

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There's uncertainty over when vintage workers will be allowed into the country due to border restrictions while in Marlborough many have come to the end of their visas and need to go home. Source: 1 NEWS

Marlborough winemakers have been in meetings this week, nervously discussing how they will prepare for the next harvest.

New Zealand Wineries General Manager Alistair McIntosh says the industry is "totally reliant on overseas labour".

"And to have the borders closed for 2021 vintage is going to be a huge problem for the industry," he said.

It's a problem not easily solved.

Wine Marlborough General Manager Marcus Pickens says they need highly skilled people.

"We're bringing in people that have made wine for their careers".

More than 1200 international workers travel to the Marlborough region each year for vintage, contributing to an export industry worth $1.9 billion.

Mr Pickens says winemakers are "very concerned about the future".

"We need these people to safely make wine for our export market and without them we can't see a pathway forward".

What could help are the hundreds of vintage workers thought to still be in the country.

Caterina Rossi is one of them.

The Chilean finished work in June but under her visa conditions, she says she can't keep earning.

"We finished the job. And like, they (Immigration) washed their hands and then they are here and they say, sorry guys but you did everything and now you need to go".

Cait Guyette, who has a permanent position at a winery, launched a petition for those in similar situations to Caterina. It garnered 1107 signatures in less than a week and Kaikoura MP Stuart Smith has agreed to take it to parliament.

Ms Guyette says it's been "really disheartening" to see her peers now having to leave the country, "because we all worked really hard"as essential workers during lockdown.

"They don't have any source of income right now and they're also faced with very expensive flights home, if flights at all."

Emergency support has been offered to vintage workers in flux, but Caterina Rossi says they don't want a handout.

"I want to work for the money, I want to do something and I think all of us we want this."
The Immigration Minister is now hinting that changes are coming.

Iain Lees-Galloway says with the borders closed, New Zealand will have to make "the most effective use of the people who are here.

"That's both New Zealanders and the people available to work and people who are here on visas.
"Certainly there are opportunities to make some changes to support those visa holders."

He says he's been taking advice and he should be able "to make some announcements soon".

But he says for the foreseeable future, employers will need to be thinking about "how they transition from being significantly reliant on the migrant workforce of the past and make more use of the New Zealanders who are here and of course the migrants who are in the country now".

Wine companies say they'll take on as many Kiwis as they can.

Mr McIntosh says if anyone has ever wanted to work in the wine industry and experience a harvest, "now's a good year to do it".

But it'll take more than one vintage to make the expert winemakers needed for growing an industry the country relies on.

Parliament passed the Immigration (Covid-19 Response) Amendment Bill in May. The bill gave the Government extraordinary powers for 12 months to change people's visa status as a group instead of a case-by-case basis.

This could include extending visas, relaxing employment conditions or stopping people overseas from making applications while the country's borders are closed.

The wine export industry is worth $1.9 billion annually.