Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has issued a statement saying any space in managed isolation facilities ahead of the holiday season would be prioritised for New Zealand workers. This has crushed any hopes the horticulture industry had of desperately needed foreign workers being allowed into the country before Christmas.
The sector relies heavily on foreign recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers to help pick fruit during the busy harvest season. But COVID-19 has created a massive labour shortage this year. The industry has been urging the government to allow in foreign workers for months, warning that without enough workers crops may end up being left to rot.
But speaking to media at the Primary Industries Summit in Wellington on Tuesday, the Prime Minister said it was not likely exemptions would be made for the sector in the coming month.
"We're absolutely aware that particularly for the horticulture sector they need certainty - so regardless of what the decision is they need to hear that rather soon," Ardern said. "What we have said to them though is that this side of Christmas we have to focus on New Zealanders. We've all seen the demand, they absolutely understand that, and have really acknowledged that the pressure right now into the Christmas period is for Kiwis, but we're talking about what we can do leading into March, which is when they have a lot of pressure on for their picking season."
Earlier this month, Horticulture New Zealand president Barry O'Neil said industry-wide it was estimated there was a shortfall of around 10,000 workers.