The Bay of Plenty is synonymous with kiwifruit. With a large contingent of new workers moving in this season from Covid-displaced industries, Josie Adams asked what life is like for those who’ve been there for years.
Under a very heavy tree in Tom French’s orchard waits a very heavy hedgehog. About a metre above the hog the tree has two branches grafted on; golden kiwifruit. This is one of only a few trees with fruit left; the rest have been picked, packed, and put in storage. This fruit is for the family, and for any roaming animal with enough patience.
French has been in the kiwifruit business for 40 years, and hedging his bets on a 50/50 split between golden kiwifruit and traditional greens has helped him weather some of the industry’s storms.
First planted in the Bay of Plenty in the 1930s, by the 70s and 80s, kiwifruit – formerly known as Chinese gooseberries, and before that monkey peaches – were taking off. French estimates they were selling trays for up to $16. Then, there was a heart-stopping price drop: five competing export companies, combined with a slowdown in demand, meant those same trays were worth only $4.
“In the 80s there were bankruptcies all over the country,” said French. “That’s when the formation of Zespri happened.” This single entity consolidated the five warring export companies. “Zespri took control, and slowly the prices crept back up again.” This year, Zespri estimates growers could get up to $6.20 a tray. On Wednesday, it reported its annual profit had risen 12% to $200.8 million.
The Bay of Plenty town of Te Puke swells up and down with the seasons, too. Te Puke is usually home to 7,500 residents, but can grow to over 10,000 people in the harvesting and packing seasons.
When the prime minister gave a speech on Monday celebrating the recovery of New Zealand’s last Covid-19 case, she lauded the horticultural industry for taking on 2,000 workers who’d lost their jobs to Covid-19.
These people largely came from tourism, hospitality and forestry. Some are ex-Air New Zealand crew. Two thousand jobs have not been created for them; rather, they’re replacing workers who would usually come in from overseas.
There are around 20,000 seasonal workers in picking and packing nationwide each year. It’s the busiest season, and takes place between March and June. Because the border has been closed since March, this year’s picking and packing season saw a higher proportion of New Zealanders; numbers aren’t clear yet, but it looks like a roughly 20% increase.
“It has always been our first priority to recruit New Zealanders for seasonal work, especially those who live close to orchards and packhouses,” said Mike Murphy of New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated (NZKGI).
“Backpackers and Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) scheme workers complement New Zealanders who traditionally make up around 50% of the seasonal workforce. In particular, while New Zealanders are our first priority, the industry still needs RSE employees who are skilled and reliable to work in areas where it is difficult to recruit New Zealanders, such as night shifts.”
As we leave picking season and move into winter pruning, some of those 2,000 hires may be out of work once again. Pruning requires fewer staff, with more training.
Selwyn Paraha moved to Te Puke in 1997, and has worked across several areas of the kiwifruit industry: growing, planting, packing; you name it, he knows something about it.
It’s tough work. The hours can be long and hot, and – at least in some orchards – you have to be relatively short to fit under the trees without condensing a couple of vertebrae.
“Last year was the first year the money’s been really good,” said Paraha. “For someone who’s been in there for years, like myself, it was around $22 [an hour].” Rates from pruning and picking had come up, but he said people who’ve been with the same company for 15 years are often still on the same wage.
The pay is low, but because half the workforce isn’t permanent there’s not much pressure for it to improve. However, that could be changing. NZKGI has a little green and gold book that it encourages workers to read, and the Kiwifruit Workers Alliance is a union formed in the past couple of years to improve pay and working conditions.
To have a career in the industry instead of seasonal stints, workers need specialist training. The $200,000 in apprenticeships funding recently announced by the government, part of its shovel-ready response to Covid-19, will offer people that opportunity. It will consist of 105 participants taking a day to learn about what the pruning industry is; 60 of those 105 will go on to do a two-week, NZQA-approved course and get more in-depth training.
Pruning has two seasons – summer and winter – so it can offer more long-term work to those put out by Covid-19. This is among the reasons it’s one of the first roll-outs of the government’s planned $19.3 million investment in the primary sector over four years.
The apprenticeship start date hasn’t been announced, but it’s anticipated to be this month. It will bring 60 new career kiwifruit pruners into the industry, offering a long-term solution to unemployment for just a few of those 2,000 who tided over part of the Covid-19 crisis with seasonal work. Tom French will employ 10 or 12 pruners this winter on his orchard, and with around 2,600 other growers in New Zealand, there’s a demand for pruning work.
Paraha still hopes to join those ranks with a small plot of land of his own. Maybe with easy access to a fishing spot. “If you know what you’re doing, you can make money in this industry,” he said. He doesn’t begrudge anyone for how they’ve chosen to make money in Te Puke. “I don’t think there’s any angels in here,” he said. “We’re all trying to make the same living.”