Kiwifruit workers are being urged to shop around for the best pay rates and conditions as the industry seeks to avoid another worker shortage for the upcoming harvest.
While a kiwifruit industry group says its surveying showed an expected average picking rate this season of $23.50 an hour, a worker advocate disputed this, saying that as picking was often at piece rates some slower pickers were falling below minimum wage.
The 2019 harvest starts in mid-March.
Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson says a lot of incorrect information existed about working with kiwifruit, making it harder to recruit people who would otherwise get a lot out of seasonal work.
“That includes the pay rates – they are actually very competitive.”
The green and gold kiwifruit harvest was forecast to be higher than last year’s, with about 18,000 workers needed.
“Last year, the harvest was at least 1200 workers short at the peak – we don’t want a repeat of that.”
While many kiwifruit pickers were paid piece rates based on how many cartons of fruit they picked in a day, others were on an hourly rate.
“There is a huge range in the types of employers and the types of pay systems,” says Nikki.
Employers expected to pay an average $23.50 an hour this season, but the range went from minimum wage to the high $20s.
“We are encouraging people to find employers that are paying well and look after their workers.
“People that are physically active can easily earn in the high $20s without working long hours. But if people don’t want to be under that pressure, or don’t want a piece rate, they should look for an employer that pays an hourly rate. This will be a lower rate, and your potential to earn will be lower, but it will provide more certainty.”
Most low skilled packhouse roles were minimum wage which will rise to $17.70 an hour on April 1, says Nikki.
Jared Abbott, a spokesperson for the kiwifruit workers’ alliance, affiliated with First Union, says he was ‘dubious of these figures’.
“It is a creative use of numbers to make it sound like a high paying industry when it is not.”
On piece rates, pay depended on experience and ability.
“We can’t tell if people are working through breaks and over-exerting themselves. You only have to work a bit slower to drop below minimum wage,” says Jared.
Quoted hourly rates also often include eight per cent holiday pay.
“If you are a kiwifruit worker and it rains and you can’t pick then you get no pay. If it rains on a public holiday you don’t get paid for it. These are conditions that don’t fit with how employment law works, but this is standard in the kiwifruit industry,” says Jared.
Nikki says that in 2017, 56 per cent of kiwifruit workers were New Zealanders, 22 percent backpackers and 17 percent Recognised Seasonal Employer workers from the Pacific Islands.
“We have a high utilisation of New Zealanders and low numbers of RSE workers, compared with Hawkes Bay pipfruit orchards and viticulture.”
To promote seasonal jobs in kiwifruit, a grower-funded recruitment campaign was targeting students, unemployed Kiwis, retirees and backpackers for peak harvesting from late March to June.
“By 2027, we’re expecting to require around 22,000 workers, as the volume of fruit grown increased dramatically,” says Nikki.
New Zealand’s largest horticultural export, kiwifruit production was expected to jump from 123 million trays in 2017 to 190 million trays in 2027, with revenue expected to jump from $2.1 billion in 2017 to $6 billion by 2030.