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As bumper season is predicted

New Zealand kiwifruit companies criticized for taking Covid-19 wage subsidy

As the industry is expecting a record harvest and exports doubled in March compared to last year, New Zealand kiwifruit companies that have claimed the government wage subsidy are under fire from some in their own industry for taking the money.

Deemed an essential service, workers were able to continue picking fruit and packhouses continued to operate during the level four lockdown.

Most kiwifruit businesses have not claimed the wage subsidy, but according to the Ministry of Social Development website, at least three have, collecting more than $2m between them on behalf of employees.

The $585-a-week subsidy is paid to employers who expect a 30 per cent drop in revenue, so they can keep on their workers over a 12-week period. So far more than $10b has been paid out, while at least $17.5m is being repaid by more than 1200 companies.

In the kiwifruit sector, Riverlock Packhouse was paid $666,352 for 96 workers, Baygold $939,000 for 134 workers and Apata $478,000 for 68 workers. Riverlock and Baygold say their revenue declined by more than 30 per cent, while Apata says it was overpaid by mistake and has been trying to pay the money back.

After Stuff asked questions, Riverlock said it would pay the money back.

Michael Franks, chief executive of Seeka, a large grower and post-harvest operator, said the amounts paid were “obscene” and harmed the reputation of the industry. While there was no question that costs had risen because of Covid-19 social distancing requirements, for many companies revenue would be up this season because of bigger volumes.

Seeka chief executive Michael Franks doesn't believe anyone in the kiwifruit industry should be claiming the wage subsidy.

“The scheme is to keep people in work, so if your business was suffering a loss of revenue as a result of Covid-19 you could carry the workers through until you got back into business again. That’s not the circumstance in our industry - we just don’t have enough workers, we’ve got so much business.”

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