15 Feb 2018

Cyclone delays arrival of Tongan fruit-pickers

4:37 pm on 15 February 2018

The apple industry is concerned worker shortages are being exacerbated just as fruit is ripe for the picking, with many Tongans held up by Cyclone Gita.

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Tonga in the aftermath of cyclone Gita. Photo: Facebook / Viliami Uasike Latu

The category four storm made landfall there on Monday night, ripping roofs off houses, destroying crops, a church and Parliament House.

Every year about 1500 people - more than 1 percent of Tonga's population - come to New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme to help with the harvest.

Pipfruit New Zealand Business Development Manager Gary Jones said the storm had thrown a spanner in the works, with their biggest worry now bringing those Tongans over.

He said flights were going, but difficulties getting to the airport and access visas and passports meant they were being pushed back.

"A lot of the government departments and buildings have closed down because of the cyclone and we've got a large number of workers who can't access their passports at the moment. So we're working to get those offices open and those workers access to those travel documents.

"We've had delays already and have had to shift workers onto later flights, there's likely to be a bit more of that over the next day or so but we hope we've cleared any backlog and get them into the different regions by next week.

It couldn't have come at a worse time, with the picking season started this week.

"We have a managed labour shortage as it is, we don't have enough workers to harvest a crop at the right quality so we end up losing quality as harvest is delayed and that quality loss is reflected in the sales values of late harvested product.

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Seasonal workers apple picking in Hawke's Bay. Photo: RNZ/Peter Fowler

He said any delays would cost not just the industry but the workers as well.

"We've had a number of natural disasters over the ten years or so the schemes been in existence and the scheme allows the workers to go back with significant amounts of money and look to build resilient housing which can help withstand these sorts of natural disasters.

Gary Jones said the next challenge would be if the cyclone hits New Zealand and more harvest days were lost with the wet weather.

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