Courgettes go to waste due to lack of labor

Brett Heap is now the sad owner of rows of courgettes he couldn't get picked because his expert and specialised workforce can't get into the country. New Zealand is heading into peak harvest season and there aren't enough workers to get fruit off trees or vegetables from the ground. This year, Heap planted 60,000 plants where he might usually plant 100,000. The level of planting was partly due to a lack of staff and partly caution He cobbled together a workforce through locals and Thai agricultural workers resident in New Zealand.

"This could be my last crop," says Heap, who grows courgettes near Waipapa in Northland. "I'm at the point where I'm not going through it again. I can accept losing a crop with weather, or disease, or water damage. I have real difficulty accepting I'm on the point of getting out of the industry because the Government doesn't care."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor would surely argue that he does care. He declined to be interviewed on the issue with a spokeswoman saying the issue was still before Cabinet and he would be meeting horticultural industry leaders next week.

There have been incremental changes - visa extensions for workers trapped in New Zealand - but now the time to pick fruit and harvest vegetables has arrived and there is no one available to do it.

Heap knows Horticulture NZ - the industry body - has raised it and he knows bureaucrats and ministers in Wellington are aware of the issue and have held extensive meetings about it. But all that talking hasn't got his courgettes off the ground and into shops, where they fetch about $6 a kilogram as we enter summer.

To do that, he needed about 10 staff who are in Thailand and unable to travel to New Zealand, as they have done for years through our Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme that brings in about 14,000 workers from other countries.

"The thing that's hard to handle for me is the dishonesty from Government and the lack of effort. The Prime Minister said we were an essential business. They've made no effort to get RSE workers into the country so we can carry on. They've got all the excuses and nobody challenges them on it. All of us spring harvesters have been hung out to dry."


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