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Tough times, less Season Employees (RSE) hired New Zealand

Bay of Plenty Times NZ 11 May 2010

HARD WORKER: Kai Lee Tan from Kuala Lumpur is in New Zealand for the fourth time to work for Seeka during the kiwifruit harvest.230410EF05CNEWS

HARD WORKER: Kai Lee Tan from Kuala Lumpur is in New Zealand for the fourth time to work for Seeka during the kiwifruit harvest.230410EF05CNEWS
More Kiwis will pick fruit this year, reducing the need for seasonal employees for the first time in years, reports Elaine Fisher.

More New Zealanders are working in the kiwifruit industry this harvest than for many years - a reflection of the increase in unemployment because of the economic downturn.

Jim Dunseath, compliance manager for Seeka Kiwifruit Industries, said a small number of backpackers were the only foreign workers at the company's newly purchased Te Awanui Huka Pack plant at Mount Maunganui.

"We don't have any recognised seasonal employees (RSE) from Asian and the Pacific working in that packhouse because there have been so many Kiwis looking for work," he said.

The Mount's status as a tourist spot means the packhouse was a popular short-term employment option for backpackers permitted to work under the working holiday scheme.

Kiwis also filled the majority of the 4000 seasonal and full-time positions in Seeka's 10 other packhouses, and leased and managed orchards from Northland to the Bay of Plenty. At the peak of the season the company will employ just under 400 RSE workers from Asia, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tuvalu. In total, the entire kiwifruit industry will employ 1440 RSE workers this season.

The RSE scheme was established in 2008 to help relieve a shortage of local labour in the horticultural industry, but the conditions under which it operates state preference must be given to employing New Zealanders first.

"Among the RSE workers are some who have returned every year, and they bring real value to the industry because of the skills they have gained and their commitment to work," said Jim.

Most stay for up to seven months, working in orchards picking fruit or in packhouses, and then carrying out winter pruning of vines once the harvest is over.

Among those who worked here before is Kai Lee Tan from Kuala Lumpur. "This is my fourth year working in the kiwifruit industry," said Kai Lee who is so short she had to wear special stilt shoes when she picked kiwifruit, but that's not a job she does anymore.

"We identified Kai Lee had special skills in working with people and now she assists with the pastoral care of our RSE workers," said Jim.

Kai Lee has worked as a journalist for a travel publication and in-office administration back home. She has also been a grader and carried out electronic data tracking of kiwifruit during previous seasons working in New Zealand.

"I like working in New Zealand because it is more relaxed here. There are no big traffic jams and the people are generally very friendly."

Jobs are hard to find in Malaysia and because of the strength of the New Zealand dollar against the Malaysian ringgit, even on the minimum New Zealand wage, making the trip to work here is financially worthwhile, she said.

Jim said although Seeka had to guarantee that RSE workers were paid at least $12.75 an hour, many could earn considerably more, especially if they were working in orchards on a piece-rate basis.

"Companies which employee RSE workers make a significant investment in bringing them here. We pay 50 per cent of their airfare and must guarantee a minimum number of hours a week, even if they can't work.

"In the early days of the scheme we also invested time in training the workers and helping them adjust to living and working in New Zealand. Now however, we have a pool of skilled, committed and reliable workers, most of who return each year."

The Department of Labour which administers the RSE scheme also requires employers to be responsible for the pastoral care of the workers, ensuring they are well housed, have transport to and from work, have access to the kinds of foods they enjoy, learn something of Kiwi culture and see some of the countryside.

Kai Lee said during her first few years in New Zealand it was hard to buy Chinese foods such as herbs, dried mushrooms and canned foods. "We used to have to go to a Chinese supermarket in Hamilton but now much more of the foods we are used to are available in Tauranga."

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