RSE the Savior of Marlborough’s Wine Industry

In 2001 the Marlborough wine industry was lamenting the lack of pruners to get the job done. Back then, there were only 6000 hectares of vines planted in the region. In 2017 there are more than 24,000 hectares and the industry is flourishing.

The first ever RSE workers in Marlborough
First ever RSE workers in Marlborough

What has happened in those intervening 16 years? Well, Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) was established, allowing contractors to bring in workers from the Pacific Islands, to undertake vineyard work. Given Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine region, the importance of its contribution to the $1.6 billion worth of exports cannot be underestimated.

Wine Marlborough’s General Manager, Marcus Pickens says without the scheme, Marlborough would not be the powerhouse it currently is.

 “We owe a great deal of gratitude to all of them”, he says.

In Marlborough’s situation, close to 75 percent of all pruning and development work in the wine industry is undertaken by RSE workers. While initially the scheme was centered around the busy time of pruning, that has changed as more and more development has been undertaken in the region.

“It is not so seasonal now,” Pickens says, “as the seasons are merging into one. There is summer work, wire lifting, hand harvesting and pruning. It is pretty much a full-time requirement.”

There is even more growth on the horizon within Marlborough, with the Labour Market Survey undertaken in 2016 forecasting another 7000 hectares of grapes to be planted before 2020. Worker numbers associated with the industry are also expected to grow by nearly 2000 within the same time period. With RSE workers totaling 2500 at the time of the survey,  Pickens says even more will be required to fulfill the future development, something the wine industry endorses.

It is a similar story in Central Otago. James Dicey, viticulturist and owner of Grape Vision has been involved in the scheme since before it was officially launched. He says without the RSE workers; “there would be a few less vineyards planted. We would be struggling for seasonal workers and I don’t think I would have the confidence to have as many Kiwis employed here. I guarantee there wouldn’t be as many vineyards or cherry blocks being developed. We would have stalled after the GFC basically.”

It has not been a one-way relationship between the wine industry and the RSE workers. When Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in 2015, decimating the archipelago, the Marlborough wine industry and community quickly raised over $30,000 to help in the rebuild. Central Otago’s wine industry did the same, with funds going directly to the Vanuatuan workers, providing funds for them to personally use in re-building their own homes and businesses.

It was a case of giving back, Pickens said, for all the RSE workers have done for the wine industry here in New Zealand.

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