Launch of 'Seasonal Solutions' for Central Otago

  • Rick Barker
Social Development and Employment

Speech Notes: 10 am Wednesday 22 December 2004. 65 Tarbert Street, Alexandra.

Well today is a great way to end the year for me. I have been very involved with finding solutions to the seasonal worker situation all year. I have visited six seasonal regions around NZ from the far North to the far South to meet with industry representatives and local growers. Being the MP for Hawke's Bay I have been dealing with the matter hands on with my constituents too. Some of you may remember my visit to Alexandra this July. Thank you for inviting me to launch this Seasonal Solutions programme here in Cromwell it's an exciting highlight of my year and goes to show that with determination, persistence and buy- in from industry, so much more can be achieved.

Rather than groups working in isolation, the 'all hands to the pump' notion, although a cliché, is relevant at a time of low unemployment and an expanding horticultural sector. Congratulations to everyone who has recognised the advantage of sharing information with a positive 'can do' attitude. Seasonal solutions, 'one stop shop' approach to the new season will, I believe, be very successful and lead the way for other regions.

Seasonal Solutions is the first official joint departmental and industry approach to solving the shortage of seasonal workers. The seasonal solutions will form when and where needed and be supported 100% by government.

The government recognises the important contribution that horticulture and viticulture makes to the New Zealand economy –the industry are an important export earner for the country, contributing $2b dollars in exports in 2003.

Seasonal Solutions is a short-term regional approach for delivering a consistent labour supply to Central Otago growers for the 2004/2005 season. It will eventually become a long-term grower owned company mapping long-term labour needs and providing a clear career path for seasonal workers.

A team including a Work and Income work broker, a seasonal co-ordinator, and input from Immigration Service and Inland Revenue will provide a “one-stop seasonal shop” service matching seasonal workers to jobs. This will be done using a database and intensive marketing to fill labour gaps. The service will also provide an accommodation referral scheme, fast-track work visas for tourists, a website and free phone line.

This is quite different picture than what I saw earlier this year. It was a bit of a mish mash to be honest. I heard comment from some growers saying they were pleased with how Work and Income had helped out with staff at short notice and then others saying they couldn't get enough and were in dire straights. Some places were up and running with tourist visas while others were not able to link up with backpacker accommodation and growers. And while the majority of employers were happy to work through solutions within the law others thumbed their nose at it by employing people illegally and not paying the minimum wage.

So in August I decided to call a symposium of key players in the industry and officials from Work and Incomes, Immigration and the Department of Labour to get all the issues on the table. The upshot of that was the government committed $100,000 to a new Seasonal Taskforce, the first task being to do an audit of the current situation. This is still in progress.

The first phase of the Seasonal Strategy is to be certain that there is maximum use of local labour and that immigration responses are only implemented when the pool here is exhausted. Yes, it is a Kiwis first policy and I make no apologies for that. Sure, strong economic growth has resulted in a significant tightening of the labour market, but contractors doing 'under the table' deals with illegal workers is not only unacceptable because it means the workers aren't paying tax and are likely to be on pay below the minimum wage, but this also exacerbates other problems such as accurately gauging any shortage in the first place. In addition, it means that there are still people on an unemployment benefit paid for by the taxpayer who could be filling those jobs.

Government made a commitment to work in partnership to solve this ad hoc seasonal employment situation and to develop a long-term strategy for providing labour which will aid in growing the local economy and contribute to its prosperity. It makes sense.

Budget 2004 also backed up the industry call to get help attracting more people into seasonal work. Earlier this year at the Lourneville Meatworks in Invercargill I announced how the government is aiming to attract people into seasonal work with the changes to the stand-down period for the unemployment benefit. This enables workers to choose their income assessment period. Rather than only having income assessed over the last 26 weeks, it can be assessed over a full year period. This is fairer for seasonal workers who have lots of work sometimes and then nothing for many months. Having their income assessed for the whole year is likely to lead to a shorter stand down period and thus reduce the stress for them and their families. This will make seasonal work a far more viable option for them. This change comes in 1 May 2005.

Improving incentives to undertake seasonal and short-term employment will have a number of flow-on benefits. Beneficiaries will leave benefit as they adopt seasonal work as a sustainable employment option. Improvement in labour supply for seasonal industries will enable these important regional industries to grow which will in turn return revenue to the Government and justify the up front investment.

Over the year, Work and Income have developed local strategies to deal with seasonal work and have employed regional managers specifically to build relationships with local growers. Last season Work and Income organised transport for workers to get to the sites, and this along with the 'Work Start' package towards wet weather gear and boots for example all helped get people into seasonal work. This is the kind of 'hands on' help Work and Income have been providing and will continue, but be more supported by other government ministries within a climate of increasing industry confidence in government services.

Today's launch of Seasonal Solutions is basically the formalising of these mini projects that have been operating in Marlborough and Northland for example. It gives it a co-ordinated, whole of government response.
Government is working on the short-term and longer-term national response to seasonal worker strategies of which Seasonal Solutions is the first stage in this region. Other regional responses are occurring in Northland, East Coast, By of Plenty and Nelson.

Central Otago growers have approximately 3000 ha planted in summer fruit and grapes. The seasonal labour requirement is estimated to peak at about 3500, and the launch of Seasonal Solutions today is the first step in a commitment to help the industry meet their labour needs.

Work and Income New Zealand and the New Zealand Immigration Service have key roles to play, firstly in ensuring New Zealanders are placed into jobs first and in providing a streamlined immigration response where there is a recognised labour shortage.

Seasonal Solutions will work with growers to assess their labour needs through a co-ordinated database and then intensively market to fill those positions. Where New Zealand workers are not available immigration will assist in fast-tracking working holiday visas, and work permits. Inland Revenue has also committed to assisting this process by fast-tracking an IRD number allocation.
Industry also has a key role to play in recruitment and keeping staff through terms and conditions, wages and identifying career paths within their industry.

So in closing, there are three things to take into account when developing a plan for seasonal industries. Firstly, the New Zealand taxpayer wants everyone to be working and not on the dole. Secondly, the interests of the seasonal industries to ensure they have the labour necessary and thirdly, respect for New Zealand law. We will only achieve a good outcome for all if there is a positive co-operative working approach, which is well underway in the Otago region.

Once again, congratulations to everyone here today for getting on the front foot for the next season. This has made my year.
I am proud that such results have been achieved in 12 months. All the best for this season and if I could bring about the best weather conditions for you, believe me, I would.