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The Bulletin: Tough times for seasonal workers

Good morning, and welcome back to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Problems with seasonal work laid bare, expanded CPTPP trade deal becomes more likely, and new swimming safety guideline launched in Auckland. 

A few big stories over the last few weeks have indicated serious strain on New Zealand’s seasonal economy. The details differ, but at the heart of them the problem is the same – a lot of people simply can’t afford to do the work that much of the economy relies on.

The first one is from Newshub, reporting on what is now pretty much a hardy annual for the horticulture sector – whether or not there’s a labour shortage, or if fruit picking pay simply isn’t good enough to tempt workers. FIRST Union says it’s very much the latter, in response to industry concerns that fruit may have to be left on the tree if a regional labour shortage isn’t declared, which would make hiring from overseas easier.

The second comes from The Spinoff, and concerns the tiny tourist town of Twizel. Amid the tourist boom, it’s becoming harder and harder for locals to make ends meet, particularly over summer when numbers skyrocket. It has even led to situations where tenants will be told to move out during the peak season, so the landlord can put the property on AirBnb. With a cost of living aimed at tourists, but wages often little more than minimum, it is often leaving workers with no choice but to leave. Unemployment in Twizel is about 1% – among the lowest rates in the country.

And the third one is from Stuff this morning, and isn’t so much a summer story, because trees are planted in autumn and winter. But tree nurseries are also saying their biggest upcoming problem is a labour shortage. The quoted figure for pay – up to $400 a day – seems attractive, but it’s also quite misleading, because it’s calculated per tree, which means that a worker would basically have to have a perfect day of planting to reach that mark. And again, it’s seasonal work, so not exactly stable employment, what with all the other various costs of living.

It’s not really clear what the solution to these sorts of problems are, taken collectively. Business groups pretty consistently say more migrant labour is needed, but the effect of that would be to undercut the local workforce – almost certainly not something the current government would be comfortable to be seen doing outside of extreme circumstances. And without some sort of solution, we’re just going to see these problems manifest themselves again and again.


Guidelines have been agreed as to how the CPTPP trade pact could be expanded, reports One News. It currently sits at 11 nations, and for new nations to come in, every existing member would have to agree to their inclusion. There’s some interesting detail in this South China Morning Post article about who those countries might, or might not be. Taiwan might have seemed like a logical candidate, given its economic position within the region. But even though China isn’t a part of the pact, they are still suspected to be exerting pressure behind the scenes to keep Taiwan out of it.

Meanwhile in trade news, PM Jacinda Ardern is currently in Britain, to get an assurance that NZ’s position won’t be any worse when Britain leaves the European Union, reports the NZ Herald. But it will be difficult for Britain’s PM Theresa May to make any firm commitments, because of the shuddering mess Brexit has devolved into, and the precariousness of her own political position.


A new safe-swimming guideline has been debuted in Auckland, reports the NZ Herald. Ōkahu Bay has been awarded the dubious honour of being stamped with the “very high risk of illness” warning on the Council’s Safeswim website, which comes with a fetching black pin (as opposed to the usual red or green.) Ōkahu Bay is back to green now, but it’s a good reminder that conditions are variable all over the city, so you should check the beach you’re at before every swim.


2018 was New Zealand’s second warmest year on record, according to NIWA. This is sort of old news now, but it’s too important to not include, so here’s a story on it from the NZ Herald from early January. Many individual locations around the country had their warmest year on record in 2018. In related news, the rate of ocean warming going on has been found to be much faster than previously thought, reports the ABC. The forecast consequences of that are faster rises in sea levels, and higher chances of tropical cyclones. Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell put out a piece at the start of January about how those rising sea levels would affect the Coromandel Peninsula, with its abundance of baches and beachfront property.

For those reading this who still have any doubt that climate change is happening, or that urgent action to combat it is needed, I urge you not to bury your head in the sand. Not least because in a warming world, that sand will get very hot and you’ll get nasty facial burns as a result. But seriously, a reminder – climate change is not something that will mean more pleasant beach weather, it will mean widespread societal, economic and agricultural disruption.


A new round of industrial action in the education world starts today, reports Radio NZ. Learning support specialists – who are employed directly by the ministry of education – will start effectively working to rule from this morning. Unless something changes, the action will continue for about a month.


The Chinese NZ Herald has been pinged editing translated NZ Herald stories to be more friendly towards the Chinese government, reports Stuff. Some of those stories include reporting about academic Anne-Marie Brady, who (irony alert) has been critical of Chinese government influence campaigns among NZ institutions. NZ Herald boss Shayne Currie says he’s made it clear that stories from his newsroom need to be translated accurately.


The NZ Herald have fired a serious shot across the bows of Stuff in the race to get clicks from office workers having morning tea – they’ve launched a new daily quiz today. My understanding is that Stuff’s Five Minute Quiz almost borders on religious ritual for white collar workers up and down the country, so this is a bold foray from NZME. Just putting it out there now too, I got a cheeky 9/10, so it’s not too hard if you’re the sort of person who reads the news obsessively.


From our partners: The government is digging deep into the price of electricity in New Zealand, with a review of the entire energy sector. What will the review look at, why should there even be one, and does it mean you might pay less for power? Vector’s Bridget McDonald has the answers.


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Right now on The Spinoff: Sarah Bichan reports on the gaps in the ACC system for injuries sustained by women giving birth. Alex Casey caught up with some celebrity impersonators, to find out how they got into pretending to be Austin Powers or Elvis. Simon Day sat down with Sir John Kirwan for a long lunch, and a chat about everything. And Sarah Austen-Smith reveals the truth about New Zealand’s cafe scene – the ones in country towns give the cities a real run for their money.

And I absolutely have to go back and ask people to read this story from last week by Maria Slade, about research into the state of the trucking industry workforce. It details appalling, illegal work conditions, and feels like a scandal that we’re only going to hear more about.


Some reflections on print media and localism to start the year. I’ve been in the USA, partly for a wedding which was absolutely wonderful, and partly to just drive around the Southwest with my lovely partner to check it all out. What I saw was strong parallels in the problems their print media industry is facing with the problems our print media has – but also some rather unlikely signs of success.

The first thing I noticed was from the Austin American Statesman just before New Year – a selection of their biggest and most impactful investigations of 2018. And they’re all great stories, about issues that affect the day to day lives of ordinary people – like the macho culture of recruits coming out of the local police academy, or an investigation into ludicrously high water bills that resulted in refunds being paid out. It seemed for all intents and purposes like a good strong local paper, doing their civic duty.

On the other hand, this feature in Austin Monthly magazine (a very similar publication to Metro here) showed a bleak recent history and similar future prospects for the Statesman. That paper has recently been acquired by Gatehouse Media, a massive publishing conglomerate, and Statesman staff have endured rounds of job losses and cutbacks. There are now real fears that the Statesman might end up as what is known as a ‘ghost paper.’

What exactly is that? It’s when the masthead of a paper stays the same, but little to no local production remains – often meaning no journalists on the ground. I picked up a copy of the San Angelo Sun Times, and it was the perfect example. Despite the city of San Angelo, Texas being about 100,000 people strong, the paper was almost entirely devoid of local content. The edition I picked up was almost entirely syndicated content, pulled from the USA Today network. Page 2 was taken up with a story about a Swiss university offering a yodelling course – like, sure, it’s moderately interesting, but page 2? There were precisely three things about that paper that would be useful – local weather warnings, obituaries, and using it as kindling to start a fire on cold winter nights in the desert. 

In New Zealand, there’s quite a few papers in the Stuff and NZME stables that are at real risk of going this way – arguably, some already have. A few people indicated to me last year that they weren’t actually all that bothered by their regional Stuff paper closing down, because in their view from a local content perspective, the paper was already dead.

So what’s the good news for print media in the USA? It’s happening at two completely different ends of the scale. The giants, like the New York Times and Washington Post, are absolutely thriving, because they’ve got the scale and gravitas to do the heaviest hitting, national and international level investigative work. Because of that, they’re pulling in money from overseas too now, having effectively made the whole world their market.

And then at the complete other end, there are all sorts of tiny papers – mostly weeklies – that were absolute gems. The Big Bend Sentinel, serving a swathe of desert with a few towns scattered about, was honestly one of the best local papers I’ve ever come across. They make you pay to read the whole thing, but check out how good the hard and soft news balance on their most recent front page is. There were also really telling glimpses of local culture in some of the other papers. In the Moapa Valley Progress, based in a sparsely populated and heavily Mormon part of Nevada, one of the key announcements the paper makes is about which young people have been selected to go on their religious missions. And above all, all the small, hyper-local papers were jam packed with advertising for local businesses – a sure sign that they are relevant in their communities.

But perhaps these tiny papers succeeding isn’t so unlikely at all. After all, they’re giving local people what they want – both readers and advertisers. And it’s probably worth noting that a fair few independently owned papers around NZ (Wairarapa Times-Age, ODT, Greymouth Star) all seem in pretty reasonable shape. Those papers aren’t out here trying to be the New York Times, because their communities don’t need them to be. In the internet age, so much of the news you might want can be found literally at the click of a mouse. But a real local newspaper is often the only place you can get news about your own small patch of earth.


Given there’s about a month of sports results to catch up on, I’ll just give a few lines on where some of our teams and tournaments of national significance are at. Top of the list – the Wellington Phoenix, who last night picked up a 3-3 draw away to Melbourne Victory. That in and of itself is a stunning result, but the Nix were ahead 3-1 at halftime, so they’ll be gutted with the outcome. It does however keep a club-record unbeaten streak going.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the other two teams in trans-Tasman competition – the Breakers and the Auckland Tuatara. The Breakers have been particularly poor, tumbling close to the bottom of the NBL ladder without an awful lot of time left to catch up. And the Tuatara managed a creditable 14 wins in their first Australian Baseball League season, but still finished last in their conference.

Meanwhile, the Silver Ferns have had a disappointing time of it in Netball’s northern Quad Series, losing to both England and Australia. Overnight, they picked up an extremely close win over South Africa, taking the game in double-overtime. But despite that win, it’s a tough start to a year many have high hopes for, with signs of recovery from an era of horror coming at the end of last year.

And in the Super Smash cricket competitions, two finals went right down to the the wire yesterday. In the women’s game, the Wellington Blaze just managed to hold their nerve for a final ball victory over the Canterbury Magicians, to bring back to back titles to Wellington. And for the men, the Auckland Aces had a similarly tense finish against the Otago Volts, who took their chase right down to the last over.


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