Vegetables & Fruits

$ 60 an hour to pick fruit: the kiwifruit industry desperately needs workers

High rates of up to $ 60 per hour and incentives such as cash bonuses, prizes and free transportation, lodging and food are being offered to lure pickers into the kiwi industry, which is experiencing its “toughest season” due to the impact the #Covid-19 pandemic.

Packers and clerks are currently rolling up their sleeves, hitting the shop and walking into construction sites to “get the job done.”

The kiwi industry requires 24,000 people to collect and pack a typical crop, but is drastically short of workers this season due to a lack of international workers, such as backpackers or overseas workers who normally travel to New Zealand for work seasonal.

* Kiwi workers now get over $ 27 an hour: survey
* Kiwifruit pickers and packers must be paid as a living wage
* Is the problem paying? How much do the required orchard workers really earn

There is currently a shortage of 6,500 backpackers due to border closures. Added to this is both a shortage of seasonal workers from abroad and of New Zealand workers due to the Omicron wave.

Orchard manager David Kakkar, 32, has been in the business for 15 years, having started out as a kiwifruit picker himself.

It now hires people to work on a contract basis to harvest kiwifruit in the orchards around the Tauranga area, mainly in Te Puke. The wage rates currently offered to workers are the highest I’ve ever seen in the industry.

“People are not entering the country due to Covid-19 rules,” says Kakkar. “It is what it is; I do not criticize the government for making the rules: it is the pandemic that has hit us.

“It’s hard to find good foragers, even at high rates, and it’s expensive for growers.”

This season, an experienced breeder can earn over $ 60 per hour or $ 500-600 per day, he says. Even a beginner who has never done the job before can earn $ 30- $ 40 an hour.

“Contract collectors are paid to the garbage,” says Kakkar. “The average price of a bin is $ 31 for the largest size, which is 18 bushels. Larger orchards can offer $ 33 per bin. If you are a good collector, you can easily choose two containers per hour. If you are new, one bin per hour is very doable.

Despite these lucrative rates, Kakkar says it is still difficult to find workers. It’s hard work and it depends on time.

“If the weather is good you can choose to work all week and earn a lot of money. But if it rains, you can’t go outside to collect.

“Some people come to try it, but after a few days they may give up because it’s hard on the back and shoulders and you will feel it in your muscles after a few days. If you care, it gets easier. I’ve seen people in their 60s and 70s doing this every year.

“There are locals doing this and the fares have seen people travel from other parts of New Zealand, but we really miss those travelers.”

Amrit Sharma, who runs orchards in Pyes Pā, Te Puna, and Katikati, is also offering up to $ 62 per hour, or $ 31 per bin.

“Yes, if you are experienced, even just very fit and are not afraid of hard work, you can make good money,” says Sharma. “It’s a very physical job.”

Sharma also believes that high pay alone is not enough to attract enough people and offers extra incentives such as free transportation and laundry services and can even arrange accommodation.

“Everyone is competing for good binders.”

The high rates are attracting the attention of New Zealanders across the country, many of whom have never thought about picking fruit before.

Hannah Leigh, 21, a student from New Plymouth, is looking for a job in the Bay of Plenty as a kiwi picker due to the high pay on offer. provided / Stuff

Hannah Leigh, a 21-year-old college student from New Plymouth, has been looking for a job picking fruit to pay off her student loans.

“I was definitely attracted to harvesting kiwis because of the pay,” she says. “They also have accommodation and transportation, which is super convenient.”

Hannah says she isn’t put off by the prospect of hard work.

“It is well known that it is a physically demanding job and one of the requirements is that you are physically fit.”

Musician Ash Hughes was also lured to the Bay of Plenty by pay. Although he has never harvested fruit before, Hughes says up to $ 50 an hour is “fable,” with more experienced pickers earning $ 60 an hour. “If you team up with other good workers, it’s easier to make more money,” he says.

“I was supposed to move to Wellington, but I decided to come for kiwi harvest season because the wages were so high and some friends did too.”

While the highest dollar is offered to collectors, some prefer fixed wages in packing centers, which are not dependent on weather conditions.

These companies are also competing for workers and have raised their wage rates accordingly, with wages starting at $ 24 an hour, plus vacation and incentives.

Trevelyan CEO James Trevelyan.
Trevelyan CEO James Trevelyan.
provided / Stuff

Trevelyan CEO James Trevelyan said this season is the busiest he has ever experienced in his 48 years in the industry. Despite these challenges, the company insists that all fruit will be harvested and packaged.

Trevelyan’s currently operates with only 60% staff due to a combination of the Omicron wave and a lack of international workers.

“I never knew that before,” he says. “Last week we had 280 free employees, with Covid or in isolation as a home contact. This will impact the output of any business.

“It is difficult when you are in free fall, not knowing where you will land. We are still getting the job done and have made our way by switching shifts and increasing the number of people. “

Trevelyan said the growers came forward to help and even threw him in the mud wherever it was needed.

“The problem is getting me out of the shop,” he says.

In addition to the incentive for higher pay, Trevelyan introduced daily prize draws for staff, with spot prizes of $ 50 worth of gasoline or food stamps up for grabs.

Workers can also double their daily wages, with one person selected for each day and night shift. The company also offers free transportation, on-site accommodations with wifi, a wellness program, and a non-profit coffee shop that sells healthy food at affordable prices.

Accommodation is available at the Trevelyn warehouse

Trevelyan, who started harvesting in the family’s orchard at just 12, said hard work isn’t discouraging people – it’s simply due to a lack of people to do the work.

“It’s a physical but fun job, with a real sense of camaraderie because you’re teaming up with people from all walks of life and ages. We match people to work, so if you’re 80 you won’t have to stack boxes all day. “

Trevelyan says the opening of the borders in May is too late in the season to solve the peak of the gold labor shortage.

“It’s a welcome change, but I don’t think it will make a difference to the job situation this season,” he says. “It’s not like suddenly there will be a wave of workers.

“But we remain positive because I am calmly confident that we are at the height of the Omicron wave, so our staff numbers will start growing and we will do the job.”

Seeka CEO Michael Franks.
Seeka CEO Michael Franks.
 Seeka / Stuff

Michael Franks, chief executive of Seeka, New Zealand’s largest kiwifruit manager, says the company is also “short of people” despite offering higher pay and incentives.

“We have no backpackers and we are short of regional seasonal workers because they have not been able to get through the blockades in their countries and we have been decimated by Covid,” says Franks.

“The problem with Covid is that it is unpredictable and having enough key personnel to supply the warehouses was a problem.”

Seeka offers incentives like bonuses, free lunches, and rewards, where people must have worked multiple shifts to be eligible. They are also hiring collectors when their work has rained down.

“While we don’t have fully staffed and well-staffed staff, the increase in wage rates has actually helped as collectors are now willing to come to the sheds and work when their collection teams are turned down due to weather or fruit maturity, “adds Franks.

“Now we have binders that go into the sheds and fill the number of our employees.”

Franks said that at this stage they are on track with the harvest and moving staff “where it’s needed”, with employees turning their hand to get rid of work.

“Our key people work long hours,” he said. “We are moving fruit to where we have people, or moving people to fruit. We’re playing people out of position. We have had a cadet program for more than 10 years and as part of that program people have worked across the company.

“We have many wonderfully experienced people who are ready to change jobs and work in warehouses to get the job done. We also have office staff working in the warehouses. “