“Pay us more” - that's the message from New Zealand fruit pickers as growers cry out for more labour.
The lack of fruit pickers coming in from the Pacific has created a crisis in the horticulture industry, and some Kiwi workers say they’re not surprised New Zealanders aren’t lining up for jobs, describing “backbreaking” work and low pay.
Craig*, a veteran New Zealand picker says he “would hesitate to recommend it to Kiwis as it currently is”.
“It's very hard and difficult work. You're out in all weather. It's a minimum wage job.”
“When I first started you were able to earn about $1000 a week, now you're able to earn a little over $1000 a week, almost 15, 20 years later... The main thing they need to do is pay people properly.”
He says in his time working for a range of employers, picking all sorts of different fruit, he’s experienced bullying and hazardous working conditions, and has struggled to secure pay rises.
“You're often spoken to quite bluntly. You get handed rates. You can attempt to negotiate but as a rule you get generally branded as a troublemaker.”
It’s a similar story for Daniel* who’s been picking fruit in New Zealand and Australia for more than 15 years.
He says his pay took a big hit when he came home.
“Coming here I'm down 80 to 100 bucks a day. The money hasn't gone up in any significant way for 20 years and where it has it doesn’t keep up with the cost of living,” he says.
He says the work is hard, but that New Zealanders would do it if they were paid better.
“You're picking anywhere from 1 to 5 tonnes a day, you're claiming a ladder constantly, you've got a bag on your shoulders that weighs anywhere between 10 and 20 kilos. It's backbreaking work.”
“If you're only going to get paid minimum wage it's easier to work at The Warehouse or at the supermarket and you could make the same, probably better money.”
Both Craig and Daniel believe the RSE worker scheme, where workers are brought to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands to work on orchards, has been a factor in continued low wages.
“The introduction of the RSE scheme capped what most jobs were worth at $20 an hour and that's primarily because for the countries involved in that scheme, their minimum wages are ten times less than ours,” Daniel says.
“[Growers] have worked out how to cut labour costs over the last 20 years quite significantly and they're very reluctant to want to pay more.”
Anita Rosentreter from First union says despite claims from some growers that pickers can earn up to $35 an hour, it’s “very seldom” that she meets workers earning much more than the minimum wage of $18.90 an hour.
“Certainly we hear this narrative that you earn a lot more money if you pick at a greater rate, but it's just not that often that we come across people who are making significantly more than that [minimum wage].”
She’s calling on horticulture employers to pay workers a living wage, currently set at $22.10 an hour, and says First Union is currently bargaining with a “very large horticulture employer”.
“We're hoping to reach an agreement on what the rates of pay and other conditions of work should be for people in the kiwifruit industry, and if we can achieve that we hope that'll have a flow on effect to the rest of the workers in horticulture.”
She says any inference that New Zealanders are too lazy to do the work is wrong.
“I think Kiwis are hearing that people like them don't want to do this work because they're lazy or because they're not hard workers. I think people are offended by that and rightly so because we know that we are hard workers.
"At the end of the day, if employers and horticulture want to attract hard workers, they have to offer them something that is worth their while.”
Economist Brian Easton says more money could help bring in more Kiwi workers, but employers will have to get creative when it comes to attracting an urbanised workforce to the regions.
“Historically we used New Zealand resources - school kids, even teachers during the off-season. An important difference compared to four decades ago is that we have a lot more people working in hospitality work seasonally. A uni student is more likely to work in a restaurant or hotel than on an orchard, and that has meant that they don't easily switch over to orchards.
“It may be that higher wages would attract reserves in the area but they'll have to think smart. It's a big upheaval to leave Auckland and come and work for two or three months somewhere else. The local areas will have to look around and see what arrangements they can make.”
Statistics New Zealand figures show despite the impact of covid-19, fruit exports are up. In the year to September 2020, fruit exports were worth $3.8 billion, an increase of 11 per cent on the same period last year.