News Item

Pacific Voice Special: Jonty Moffett, Moffett Orchards, Hawke’s Bay

Media 30 Jul 2021

What are your thoughts about the RSE scheme?

It is the best scheme the Government has ever done.

There are two reasons why it works. The Pacific islands need money, and we need to get work done. There are simply not enough capable New Zealanders to do these seasonal tasks, despite industry and government efforts to support kiwis into the seasonal jobs. This year has just proven that year and year again. There were days when absenteeism of NZ casual staff was a high as fifty percent.

As an industry we have adapted with new varieties, more efficient growing systems, and automation in pack houses, but we still need large numbers of people for short periods of time. We need the support of the RSE scheme until advances in technology are available so we can automate more of our manual tasks.

For the last 12 years, every year apart from last year, I have been to the Pacific to recruit. I have seen the difference in the lives it makes in the villages, it is huge. I have seen for myself better housing, more kids in school and small businesses starting up.

The RSE scheme is a great source of income for the Pacific islands. Money gets straight to the people who need it. The effect of the new skills learned and the broadening of people’s horizons should not be underestimated. I have seen the positive effects, the skills, the money and experiences the RSE scheme has had on Pacific people’s lives and I feel extremely proud to have been a small part of it.

Have your orchards and productivity been adversely affected by less RSE workers coming in since COVID hit?

Yes, productivity has dropped, costs have risen, and some jobs just have not been done. Everyone has had to work longer hours, and this is not sustainable going forward.

Staff absentee was horrendous.

How have you responded to this challenge?

I have worked seven days a week, have not slept very well and probably drank too much. It is enormously stressful.

For us personally we have had minimal wastage but have not operated at optimum. We have done a rough job. I know plenty of people in the industry who have lost a lot of produce. And juice does not pay anything, at best it covers harvest and transport only.

How long have you been getting RSE workers in and from what countries?

12 years.

Why Tonga?

We have kiwi staff here originally from Tonga. Family connections, so made sense to go there.

How many do you bring in a year?

50 a year.

Do you pay RSE workers the minimum wage or the living wage and what other benefits do you provide to your employees?

We pay the living wage plus a bonus, and we house them all. They do pay us accommodation.

Do you think workers’ living expenses mean they do not have a lot to send back to their families?

The minimum an RSE worker is paid is $22 an hour plus holiday pay and are guaranteed a minimum of 30 hours per week. Including holiday pay they receive at least $640 per week in the hand. Living expenses, visa, insurance, flights (half of which the employer pays for), and transportation comes to approximately $275 per week which leaves a disposable surplus of $365. Most RSE workers earn excess of $22 an hour and work 40 to 50 hours per week at least. The odd RSE Worker will waste his money, but they generally support each other to keep themselves focused on their goals. This is typically new houses, cars, tractors, school fees, farming equipment and outboard motors. Their needs back home are high and this keeps them focused.

What do you think about men being separated from their families for so long? Do you encounter any problems such as heavy drinking or people finding a local and marrying them and not going home?

Yes, it has been hard for everybody, but most of the men have seen it as opportunity for their families to gain extra income. We have had all these problems. Generally speaking, if they do find a local girl and get married, there is a pathway for residency, but they have to go home first.

Generally, the ones that run away are young and get involved in the local Tongan community, but it is a very low percentage. I think I have had two over the last 12 years. When they are found though, there are consequences.

How do you actually find the RSE workers to work in your orchards and is the system efficient?

Yes, a bit bureaucratic but there are good reasons for that. We must maintain the integrity of the scheme. I think its reasonably balanced. My biggest complaint would be the Government does not always give the industry the numbers we require. I would estimate that eighty percent of the industries wages would be paid to New Zealanders, with the remanding twenty percent been paid to migrant Labour to help complete seasonal tasks.

Since having the RSE scheme, it has enabled businesses to grow and develop. In the horticulture industry there is plenty of full time all year-round work, but to support this, we need extra staff to do the key seasonal tasks and need reliable people with the skills to get the job done.

We need the numbers from the Pacific Islands to complete the work required each season. We need more. The industry is starving. Businesses will shrink without the certainty of labour. There is no point planting a crop you cannot pick.

Do you have any advice for the New Zealand Government how they can improve the RSE scheme?

Listen to the growers. Let them grow the industry. We will jump through hoops; just give us the numbers we need. Everyone in our industry is looking at each other shaking our heads.

Bringing in RSE workers under COVID and having to pay all their isolation costs at $6,000 per person to land them in the country before they do a day's work is not viable. Why bring them from a COVID free country, stick them in a MIQ facility where there is Covid and then bring them to our orchards to where they live in their own purpose-built accommodation blocks.

Why not have special flights with an RSE/essential worker bubble? We have got a year’s work falling on the ground. We make massive investments to plant crops, and it just seems ridiculous to see it all fall away. All of this is making food more expensive.

We are not joking. It is so serious the problem we have in our industry, they just do not realize. The RSE scheme is the best form of aid we can give to the Pacific Islands.

What do you think of the Governments recent announcements they want to curb the number of low skilled immigrants coming to New Zealand on temporary visas?

Migrant labourers are really work focused. They leave home to make money for their families.

If we do not bring in migrant workers, the industry will suffer the horrendous labour shortage we have just endured.

What will make New Zealanders want to pick apples?

There are many good NZ apple pickers but not enough of them. The industry and government have put in huge support to get kiwis into casual work. But the challenges are many and not everyone is suitable.

Bio*

In the early 60s Jonathan Moffett left Northern Ireland and a budding international rugby career (he played two test matches for Ireland) to emigrate to Hawke’s Bay. Shortly after arriving in New Zealand he met and married Christine and they leased their first block of peaches in 1968.

50 years and 200 hectares later, together with his sons Jonty, Joe and Sean, manage their large family owned and operated apple orchard - Moffett Orchards in the Hawke’s Bay, and are also growers of rock and watermelon.


Left to right – Kosma, Jonty and Maka