Foreign workers vital for rural contractors

Why are we letting immigrants work when there are so many unemployed New Zealanders?

It’s a simple question with a  several answers:

There isn’t always a match between the skills and attitude of the unemployed and the available jobs.

People looking for full time, permanent work aren’t always willing to accept part time or temporary positions.

The people without work don’t necessarily live where the work is and are unable or unwilling to move.

That’s why the Rural Contractors NZ says foreign workers are vital for the industry.

RCNZ president Steve Levet was commenting on recent claims made by Labour leader David Cunliffe about foreign labour being used in the horticulture sector at the expense of local workers.

“Any similar claim made about rural contracting is neither accurate nor fair,” he explains. “Nobody I know turns away a Kiwi who is willing to work.”

But Mr Levet admits there is a gap between rural contractors’ needs for trained agricultural machinery operators and unemployed New Zealanders who could do that work. Part of this shortfall is met by bringing in skilled operators from overseas.

“Contracting is a seasonal business and one that uses sophisticated machinery that requires technical skill to operate productively. Many contractors would like to employ New Zealanders but by the time they have trained them, the season is over.

“In many cases, the operator does not return the next year so the contractor has lost the investment they have made in training.”

Mr Levet says political parties of all persuasions need to understand that a dire shortage of suitable agricultural machinery operators means rural contractors rely on employing skilled people from overseas on a temporary basis each season and have done so for many years.

He adds that many of the applicants Work and Income NZ (WINZ) tries to fill these vacancies with; either do not have the right skill-set and/or attitude to be successful.

“We are talking about operating highly technical and very expensive pieces machinery. It is unrealistic, unsafe and impractical to expect unemployed people to walk off the street and successfully take up these positions.”

However, contractors are looking at better ways to work with WINZ to better source and train operators here. He adds that a recent open day held by Rural Contractors NZ members in Southland offers a good model on how this could be done.

Mr Levet says the seasonal nature of rural contracting means workers with the right skills are needed for only 3-4 months each year and, understandably, this kind of short-term employment does not often suit locals who are looking for fulltime work.

“The rules around employing temporary, skilled people from overseas prepared to work for 3-4 months each year need to be simplified as do the regulations restricting people who have previously worked here in past seasons coming back to New Zealand to work,” Mr Levet adds. “This is vital to ensure that the primary sector continues to be the economic driver for New Zealand”

Lots of young New Zealanders head overseas for work in other countries and usually find it easy to get work for the same reason contractors and farmers welcome foreign workers here – they’re usually keen, skilled and reliable.

Even jobs which take little or no skill require the right attitude and ability to turn up on time and do what’s required to the standard required.

But many rural contracting job require experienced staff and would be dangerous for the unskilled.

The time and effort it takes to employ foreign staff is a hand brake on productivity.

It can also be costly in industries like horticulture when fruit and vegetables have to be harvested when they’re ready.

Simplifying the rules and processes and accepting that sometimes overseas workers are often more suited to seasonal work than locals would help.


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