In the early 2000s the orchards and vineyards of central Otago were heavy with fruit. Peaches, cherries and grapes were ready to be plucked, boxed and shipped all over the world. But there was a problem. There weren’t enough people to pick them. Hiring backpackers and students on holiday was the usual practice, but it was risky.
James Dicey, the man behind Mt Difficulty wines: “I remember a Swedish backpacker who turned up. I did the paperwork, gave him his tools, trained him. He spent two and a half days with me, got enough money to get on the juice and do a bungy jump, then disappeared.”
For Basil Goodman, another grower from Cromwell, the staff shortage was becoming demoralising: “For two of three years, we did get to a stage, where we did not harvest all the fruit we grew. You put your whole year’s work into a box of beautiful looking peaches or nectarines and apricots and then they just don’t quite get to the box.”
Last month, Basil retired after a lifetime in the industry, just a few weeks before his 80th birthday. One of his proudest achievements is starting what is now called the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, or, the RSE.
The government now leads the project and it’s become the biggest formal overseas worker scheme in the country. It has two purposes: to fill the labour gap during the busy harvest seasons and to boost pacific economies.
Last year, about 12,000 workers took part, mostly from the Pacific. And after years of industry begging government, the cap’s set to jump to 16,000 over the next two years.