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As COVID-19 decimates job numbers, NZ potato industry can't hire fast enough

Chris Claridge, CEO of Potatoes New Zealand

Breaking the silence of the nationwide lockdown in New Zealand, the hum of a tractor is the only sound.

Farmers are among the country's essential workers, so farms and fields are remaining busy keeping food on Kiwis' plates. And despite panic-buying, there is no shortage. New Zealand could survive on potatoes alone.

Chris Claridge, CEO of Potatoes New Zealand:

“We produce about half-a-billion kilos annually.”

“That's 125kg per man, woman and child. We've had between 30 and 50 percent increase in demand from the supermarkets.”
Across food production business is booming, driven by Kiwis stocking up. There's plenty of food but a shortage of workers as coronavirus fears keep staff away.

Chris Claridge:

“What we do need is labour and staff- that's the critical issue going forward, that people feel confident coming to work, they feel safe and we can retain our workforce.”
The New Zealand growers are still in business but in the midst of a level 4 lockdown, business as usual has to change. There are strict safety measures and at least two metres of social distance applies here too.

But it's not enough to satisfy every worker. Newshub Nation understands some food producers have a third of their staff not turning up.

Chris Claridge:

“We're concerned we don't have adequate labour in the packhouses to continue to produce domestically, but also for export internationally.”
That's on top of a shortage of migrant workers for crops like kiwifruit coming at a key time of year. With fruit now in season, growers and packers are frantically searching to find enough staff.

James Trevelyan, Packhouse director:

“We're getting a constant stream of people calling in, but really it's still not enough.”

“We're probably running at maybe half to two-thirds of the staff that we require, we require a lot more staff and we're just only one post-harvest facility in the Bay of Plenty, so the area is desperate for more staff.”
That shortage could be a lifeline to the growing number who've lost their jobs, like Margie McTainsh, an early childhood carer. Now she works in the packhouse kitchen, grateful for whatever pays the bills.

Margie McTainsh:

“Our services all got put on lockdown, so all my daycare babies are staying at home. This time last week I didn't think I was gonna be working in a packhouse, but here I am and I'm enjoying it, you've just gotta do what you've gotta do for your whanau, for your friends.”
The food industry as a whole is thriving and supermarkets thriving most of all. In the North Island alone Pak'nSave and New World have hired 949 people in the last two weeks.

Roger Betham is one of those workers. Normally he's a personal trainer, but no clients means no pay and a big financial risk.

Roger Betham:

“Losing the mortgage, we wanted to make sure we were ahead on that mortgage, making sure the bills were getting paid. Four weeks is a lot of money to lose. So I thought I'd better get out there and do something.”
The opportunities are desperately needed. Job site seek.co.nz is getting four times its normal traffic. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk as the economy grinds to a halt.

Around 216,000 Kiwis are employed in retail, but 185,000 of those are not at work. About 133,000 more work in hospitality - another whole industry forced to stay home. Survey data from the Restaurant Association estimates 50,000 could lose their jobs.

Add to that tourism, aviation, and construction - all industries fighting just to survive. And amidst an almost total lockdown, options for new jobs are slim. But not in the Bay of Plenty, where it seems to take no time at all.

Forklift driver Jeff told Newshub Nation that getting a job was as simple as sending a text:

“Took me half an hour basically, I just sent a text message to human resources here, and half an hour later I got a job offer.”
Amid a crisis, Kiwi food is doing more than filling bellies. For some, it's also filling pockets in a time of desperate need.

Chris Claridge offers this message to Kiwis who have lost their livelihoods:

“Go to Work and Income, ask if there are jobs available and take up the opportunity of the work - there will be work there, we do need workers and it will be an ongoing demand.”
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