Growers nervous despite imminent arrival of RSE workers

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The arrival of seasonal workers from next week gives growers some certainty, but they fear the upcoming season will still be a big challenge.

an orchard worker picks ripe red apples from a tree in huonville, tasmania

By Tom Kitchin of rnz.co.nz

Seasonal workers arriving from the Pacific Islands next week will be able to skip MIQ and go to work during their isolation period.

Vaccinated workers from Vanuatu can come in from next Monday, while those from Tonga and Samoa will need to wait until Tuesday, 12 October.

The workers will complete a self-isolation period of seven days and undertake day zero and day five tests, all while working at their work sites.

Thornhill Horticultural Contracting is putting workers up at its 300-bed dedicated hotel in Hastings, and its general manager Nick Bibby said the operation would be under a strict alert level 4 working environment.

"The workers will be able to go to and from work and that's about it, and when they're at work they won't be able to interact with anyone - it will all be done from a distance with face masks and all the rest of it."

He said there was little risk, as they were coming from Covid-free countries.

"They'll be working within their bubble, and no one outside their bubble will be able to go to them - much like, I guess, if you're at an MIQ facility and you exercise in the exercise yard."

He still wanted more clarity on the long-term picture from the government.

"We're hoping to get some more around the long-term bubble between their countries and the RSE workers - we're going to need a heap more workers in February to get the apples picked."

New Zealand Apples and Pears chief executive Alan Pollard said it was good to have certainty, but feared the upcoming season would still be challenging for labour.

"RSE is one part of the equation but backpackers are another, and there's less than 5000 in the country at the moment and then having access to work-ready New Zealanders and when you're looking right across the economy where everyone is screaming out for workers, the ability to access those is highly constrained."

Hawke's Bay has had some of the highest Pasifika vaccination rates in the country, with 88 per cent of the eligible population having had their first dose.

Its Pacific health manager Tofilau Talalelei Taufale said they started the conversation early, person to person.

"We have different pressures amongst our different groups, and so being able to talk to them face to face was essential in this."

Tofilau said he was still waiting for more information about the RSE workers' second shot.

"From a local level, I guess we are preparing as a Pacific team to be agile to whatever the high levels set - I'm meaning the Ministry of Health, the various government departments and working in partnership with the Pacific Island governments."

Kainga Pasifika supports Pasifika families in the region and its leader Tevita Faka'osi said it was good to have more Pasifika in the area.

His organisation has been supporting RSE workers who had to stay in New Zealand with no job over the colder months with the likes of food parcels funded through Whānau Ora. He hoped it could continue the support into the future.

"When [the] RSE come here I was so happy they come here to help us. But they need help too when they come out here to be looked after well. ... we are so blessed we have Pacific Islanders here to help pick the fruit."

Up to 14,400 RSE workers normally come through New Zealand each year and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the pilot scheme would test systems for a broader reopening of the borders.

Horticulture New Zealand said in 2019, exports from the horticulture sector reached an estimated value of $6.4 billion.