Apples Need To Be Picked To Earn Export Dollars


Catching up with RSE workers in the Papua New Guinea Highlands

It is not easy being Minister of Immigration. Particularly in Covid times. New Zealand is a very attractive destination for people from around the world at the best of times; for tourists, as well as people intent to build a new life for themselves in our country.

In 1981, I was one of the people who came to New Zealand to start a new life. Horticulture was  set on a growth path at the time, primarily related to the emergence of kiwifruit as a product to be reckoned with and what was known as the ‘Queen Street farmer’ phenomenon being very popular at the time, and being supported by Rob Muldoon’s tax policies – but that is a different story.

Anyway, this 23 year old youngster from Germany was told in 1981 by the Immigration Department that there was no room for a qualified European horticulturist in New Zealand because “there were plenty of New Zealanders who needed work and they will all be absorbed into the horticultural industry, so tough luck, old chum, we do not need you.” The Minister of Immigration was a chap called Aussie Malcolm at the time, which I always considered something of an oxymoron as far as the name was concerned.

Well, that did not go down too well with me – and thirty-nine years later I am still here to prove them wrong!

Fast forward to 2020.

The country is in the grips of Covid-19 and its consequences. There is an election happening in six weeks, and the Minister of Immigration is Kris Faafoi. Unlike Aussie, Faafoi was not born in Australia as the son of a New Zealand official posted there at the time, but in Christchurch as the son of immigrants from the Tokelau Islands. So, things are definitely looking up.

Kris Faafoi only recently succeeded to the Immigration portfolio, after the Prime Minister dismissed his hapless predecessor. It is therefore a fair assumption to make that Kris Faafoi is one of Jacinda Ardern’s ‘go-to’ ministers when a mess needs to be cleared up somewhere; a safe pair of hands, just as Chris Hipkins appears to be.

Tonight I was watching TV 3 News, which showed an item on the plight of the apple industry. If you have not seen it, it is worthwhile watching.

When I see The Yummy Fruit Company’s Paul Paynter, a fifth generation apple grower, Alan Pollard, the Chief Executive of New Zealand Apples & Pears and Rex Graham, the Chair of Hawkes Bay Regional Council and someone who spent decades as a fruit grower himself, combine forces to predict a $9.5 billion loss to the New Zealand economy, I sit up and listen.

And when these three gentlemen then state that using unemployed kiwis, students and prisoners on day-release are an inadequate replacement for trained RSE workers keen to earn money in a way they can’t in the Pacific Islands where they hail from, then our politicians need to listen.

The TV3 News item also featured an interview with Kris Faafoi, in which he stated that New Zealanders need work ahead any seasonal workers and that the “borders are closed for a good reason”.

Well Minister, Horticulture is part of the export portfolio that is helping the country right now to keep its head at least partially above the economic waters.

But apples do not pick themselves and apple trees pruned by someone who has no motivation and is not prepared to learn how to prune an apple tree properly, can substantially reduce the yield of an orchard for the following two seasons.

The world might have changed but a few home truths have not. Two of these being that an export focused horticultural industry is reliant on a trained seasonal workforce and that relying purely on out of work New Zealanders, students and prisoners is not a sustainable model.

It was not in 1981 and it is not in 2020 and beyond.