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Sealord's SoS to office staff for factory floor as labour crisis hits hoki season

Credit: NZ Herald

Seafood exporter Sealord will take a $5 million loss in its Nelson wet fish processing factory this hoki season because of a "massive" worker shortage.

The company has asked Nelson and Auckland office staff to volunteer to work in the factory which is about 300 workers short of the labour force needed to process this season's hoki catch.

Known as "the people's fish", hoki is a staple of the fast food and frozen fish food industries. The season runs until September.

Sealord chief executive Doug Paulin, who's been taking his turn in the factory, echoes hospitality bosses in saying the worker shortage has nothing to do with pay rates - "there's just no people".

"It's nothing to do with what you pay. It used to be in the hoki season 90 per cent of workers would have been on working visas. Last year we got more New Zealanders and a few still in the country on working visas. This year there's very few of either category.

"We've been short of people for the last 18 to 20 months. We normally recruit about 450 people, last year we got about 300.

"This year we're looking at maybe 150, so we're 300 workers short."

Paulin said before the pandemic closed borders and wiped out the foreign traveller worker pool, 90 per cent of hoki season workers were on working visas.

However young New Zealanders' unwillingness to do some labour roles in the primary industry was also a factor.

"It's generational change and it's also backed up by the Government wanting to get people into much higher paying roles, become more educated and look at vocations which support New Zealand moving away from labour-orientated roles.

"But at the same time there are still thousands of roles that are relatively laborious and are still required to support the New Zealand economy.

"A significant number (of young Kiwis) have gone offshore. They want to travel the world and I think that's the right thing to do when they're young. There's always been a number of primary industries that have difficulty attracting New Zealand labour. This (Covid) has just exacerbated a long-term issue.

"Many millions of dollars will be lost. We'll lose $5 million in that fish factory this year."

Sealord office staff were answering the call to help in the factory knowing "if the fish isn't processed there will be no fish to sell, market, distribute or whatever it is they do for the company in their day job", Paulin said.

The company was also going to sea shorthanded and would not catch its hoki quota this season. However the crew shortage on the vessels was not as acute because additional trips could be made.

Sealord is one of the biggest players in New Zealand's $2 billion seafood export sector. Seafood is the country's seventh biggest export product.

Paulin said he got the idea to call on office staff from vineyard operators in Marlborough and Central Otago.

"They said without harvesting the grapes there wouldn't actually be office jobs, so they pretty much shut the offices and moved people to the critical outside roles."

It was the first time Sealord had ever asked office staff to help in the factory.

Some office staff were doing time in the factory over and above their office work, while others had taken owed leave to work in the plant and were getting the same pay as factory staff. Feedback on the experience from office and factory staff had been positive, Paulin said.

As Sealord is discovering, technology isn't always the solution to an ongoing critical labour shortage.

The age of the Nelson plant ruled out the introduction of new technology and the cost of building a new high-tech factory would be around $100m, which wasn't a financially viable proposition, Paulin said.

The company was already looking ahead to next year's hoki season and taking "a leap of faith" that holiday working visas and foreign labour will return in numbers.

"I don't think there's going to be any more New Zealanders floating around (than now). It's something we are just going to have to deal with."

How's it been for the big boss working on the factory floor?

"I grew up working in factories and I like interacting with staff.

"But standing on my feet for long periods of time is more difficult than I remember."

To view the NZ Herald article, click here:

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