Sunday, 28 February 2021

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Dozens of kiwifruit jobs on offer as worker shortage hits home

It’s the calm before the storm at a mostly empty kiwifruit packhouse in Whenuakite.

However, from early next month, the grading benches, packing lines and cool stores will be abuzz with activity as the facility sorts, processes and packs around 1,200,000 trays of fruit from local producers destined mainly for the lucrative overseas markets.

The harvest is ready, the flat pack boxes are being assembled onsite and the huge collection bins are stacked and ready to head out to the orchards. But there is one crucial part of the logistical puzzle missing - the people to make it all happen.

“Our season at the packhouse side of the operation runs from early March to early June, three months, and during that time we need around 80 staff,” says Julie Cullinane, employment manager for Seeka’s Coromandel operations. “Our first focus has always been on employing locals, we do everything we can to encourage people to come and have a chat with us. We have a great crew of local employees, many of whom have been with us for several years, but we can never attract even close to what we need.”

While this has always presented challenges, the massive decrease in the number of seasonal workers and backpackers coming to New Zealand this year because of COVID-19, means motivating Coromandel residents to look at the fruit industry as a genuine opportunity for short-term or long-term work has never been more crucial. “We usually rely on around 30 to 35 workers from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu,” says Julie. “This season we may only have a quarter of that, so we’re facing a serious shortage at the moment that we need to address fairly urgently.”

The company has already hosted an open day in a bid to give prospective employees the opportunity to see for themselves the various roles available, meet some of the current staff and dispel some of the misconceptions about working in the fruit industry. A second event will be held this Thursday, 25 February, and the team really wants people to come and see what it’s all about.

“Yes there are some long days but that is not all season long, it is just for four or five weeks during the absolute peak,” says Julie. “You do have to be flexible, but with a reasonable level of commitment people can average 30 to 40 hours a week over the three months. I really encourage anyone who is interested to come and talk to us. Let us know your circumstances and we will go from there.”

Julie is also keen to get the message out that work is available year-round for those who want it. “There is the capacity to have continuous work by moving into the orchards for pruning and thinning,” she says. “There are lots of options, I don’t think people realise that.”

With a starting wage of $22.10 per hour, some of the current staff say there is good money to be made whether you are after a short-term gig or hoping to take the first step on the ladder of a new career. “It’s a great industry to be part of,” says packhouse manager, Scotty Cullinane from Whitianga, who is now in his sixth season with Seeka in Whenuakite. “When you think the fruit we are processing here could end up on a plate in Belgium or Brazil or somewhere in the US. Our growers have been working hard all year to get this fruit ready, we only have it for a brief time, but it’s vital we look after it well and make sure it all gets off safely to its destination.

“We do work hard but we have a lot of fun at the same time. We are a pretty small packhouse here compared to others around the country. We all know each other, you know people’s names, you are not just a number. Most of the people I know now in Whitianga I have met working in the packhouse over the years. There is a real social side to the job.”

Julie says everyone’s work at the packhouse is highly valued because they all depend on each other. “No-one is more important than anyone else, if one part of the process breaks down, it all breaks down,” she says. “So we very much work as a team and really support each other. That’s especially important on those long, busy days when of course people do get tired, but we take care to look after one another.”

Site manager, Cheyne Beaver, who moved to the Coromandel in 2019 after nine years in the Bay of Plenty, agrees. “It’s a great atmosphere, I love it here,” he says. “It’s the best move we’ve ever made.” Having started as a packer himself, Cheyne is an example of how a career can grow and develop within the sector.

“There is huge opportunity,” says Dave Gibson, from Cooks Beach. “For anyone who wants a career in the horticulture sector, this is a great first step on the ladder and if you are committed you can easily work your way up.”

Dave came to work at the packhouse as a machine operator four years ago after supposedly retiring early to the Coromandel. “I realised I wasn’t quite ready to give up work,” he says. “I love the interaction here and the sense of anticipation now as we get ready for the busy season.”

Also among the small crew of permanent staff is Cheyenne Pulman, another Whitianga-based employee, who first started packing and grading in Whenuakite at the age of 16. “Then I went away and did some other things, but I decided to come back,” she says. “I like the flexibility it offers, you can work hard for a few months and then have time to do other things, I really enjoy that work life balance.” Cheyenne is now involved in the data processing side of the operation and also does some orchard work over the winter.

As the countdown continues to when the first trucks roll in with those freshly picked kiwis, back on the packhouse floor Cheyne says the maintenance and preparations are all on track for the start of the new season. “I’m excited to get going, it’s what we prepare for all year,” he says. “Now we just need a few more people to come and join us.”

More information about working at Seeka is available at www.seeka.co.nz/work.

Pictured: Scotty Cullinane, Dave Gibson, Julie Cullinane and Gavin Kerr from the Seeka kiwifruit packhouse at Whenuakite are looking for some new workmates ahead of this season’s harvest.

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