5 Sep 2016

Immigrant workers needed due to NZers' work ethic, drug use - PM

8:10 pm on 5 September 2016

Prime Minister John Key has defended bringing in immigrants to do New Zealand jobs, even in low-skilled work like fruit picking.

A record 69,000 people settled in New Zealand in the year to July.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse says the planning range for the number of new residents the government expects to enter the country will be reviewed by Cabinet in the next month or so.

The Labour Party says there is a mismatch between immigration and labour market needs, with workers being brought in from overseas to fill jobs while thousands of New Zealand labourers are unemployed.

22082016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Caucas run. John Key.

John Key says the government will continue to bring in large numbers of immigrants to fill jobs. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Speaking on Morning Report today, Mr Key admitted high immigration was putting a strain on the country's infrastructure, but the government would continue to bring in large numbers to fill jobs.

He said this was partly because many employers could not get New Zealanders to work due to problems with drugs or work ethic.

"We bring in people to pick fruit under the RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) scheme, and they come from the islands, and they do a fabulous job. And the government has been saying 'well, OK, there are some unemployed people who live in the Hawke's Bay, and so why can't we get them to pick fruit', and we have been trialling a domestic RSE scheme.

"But go and ask the employers, and they will say some of these people won't pass a drug test, some of these people won't turn up for work, some of these people will claim they have health issues later on. So it's not to say there aren't great people who transition from Work and Income to work, they do, but it's equally true that they're also living in the wrong place, or they just can't muster what is required to actually work."

He said geographic location was a major factor in matching unemployed people up with available jobs, and filling a position like a hairdresser in Queenstown could require a migrant to fill the role.

But he conceded that the high immigration rates put pressure on the country's infrastructure.

"Therefore you need to spend more money on the basic services, whether it's education or policing or whatever it might be, a bigger population drives that.

"The counter-argument is that it creates economic activity, migrants usually add quite a lot of value to our country, not just in terms of what they bring culturally, they generally add to the overall economic wealth of the country."

Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff said those comments were unfair to local workers, and the government needed to look at conditions and pay in the horticultural sector.

"Demonising New Zealand workers and not giving them a shot at these jobs and creating reasonable jobs is the wrong way to go and I think it's a ... you know it's a political stunt."

Hawke's Bay grower backs PM on NZ workers

One Hawke's Bay grower said the prime minister's description of immigrant workers as more reliable than New Zealanders for seasonal work was spot-on.

Leon Stallard - a grower, a director at Horticulture New Zealand and a former president of the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers' Association - told RNZ host Jesse Mulligan that he agreed with Mr Key's comments.

"I would say everything that John Key said, yes, is true - I would tick every one of those boxes, in essence. I mean, labour is one of the most stressful parts of this business other than the weather."

RSE worker offloads apples into a crate in a Hawke's Bay orchard.

A RSE worker offloads apples into a crate in a Hawke's Bay orchard (file) Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

In the past, growers could rely on local families who would return to work for them each season for years but that was no longer the case, he said.

"I use a theory if I need 30 people, I get 40 people, locals, 'cause on average I only get 30 every day ... They just don't turn up, they couldn't get a ride, I don't know, but their reliability, I mean, you just can't depend on it."

He was unable to comment on drug use as an issue as the industry didn't usually test for it.

"We don't test for drugs - we should, I mean, the theory is if we do test for drugs, we may not have any staff... [although] that's anecdotal."

The RSE scheme had "worked brilliantly", especially in Hawke's Bay, Mr Stallard said.

"We have 10 weeks of harvest. It is difficult for New Zealanders to come from out of town, to find accommodation just for a period of 10 weeks - and then there's the issue of if they bring families, the issue of schooling and finding schooling for them for that time, and making sure they don't fall though the cracks ... Basically, adds pressure if you're running your own business to have to do all that pastoral care too, which comes with the territory and we understand that.

"[Migrant workers] are far more reliable and their productivity seems to be higher. If I have 30 people, I know that the next day I'm going to have 30 people."

In his own orchard, he had used immigrants and migrants including New Zealand-Samoans and backpackers from Japan, Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic, among other places.

"Last year, I might have had out of 30-odd people, I might have had two New Zealanders other than my permanents."

The work wasn't particularly arduous, although workers did need to be reasonably fit, and there were permanent opportunities for those that were interested, he said.

"There's definitely opportunities for permanent staff in the orchards - that's what you see advertised now quite often, is people with skills, that've got some understanding of our industry, who have had some training, and if they haven't, most of the growers are more than happy to assist them into training and help them and encourage them to get into the industry.

"We need quite a few thousand in the next few years - the industry's in a bit of a boom phase at the moment."

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