Kiwifruit picker reveals $60 per hour secret

File photo.

Is it really possible to earn $60 an hour picking fruit? “Absolutely!” says Maketū’s Trish Townsend, who has been a kiwifruit picker in the Bay of Plenty for four years.

“I did $60 per hour yesterday, and I am looking forward to $90 an hour at Easter when we’ll be on time-and-a-half. As long as the weather stays fine, I will be going hard.”

Last month Stuff revealed that high pay rates of up to $60 per hour, and incentives such as cash bonuses, prizes and free transport, accommodation and food, are being offered to lure pickers to the kiwifruit industry, which is experiencing its “toughest-ever season” due to the impact of Covid-19.

The industry usually requires 24,000 people to pick and pack over a typical harvest, but is drastically short this season due to a lack of international workers, such as backpackers or seasonal workers from overseas.

There is currently a shortage of 6500 backpackers due to New Zealand’s border closures, plus a shortage of overseas and Kiwi workers due to the current wave of Omicron.

Pickers are traditionally paid a higher than post-harvest packhouse staff, where fruit is graded and packed. Pay across Bay of Plenty packhouses currently starts at $24 per hour.

Townsend says that as far as she knows, this year’s picking rates are the highest they’ve ever been.

“They need to attract good pickers to get the job done.

“If you are in a good team you can make $60 an hour or more on a contract basis, as you get paid by the bin.”

Townsend says bin rates have increased since last year, but advises potential pickers to shop around, ask about terms, and join teams that have experienced pickers to learn from.

After starting in the industry at 18, Townsend worked grading fruit in packhouses until she was 30.

“The pay wasn’t much back then,” she said, “but we loved every Thursday lining up for our cash in a brown envelope.”

Now 52, the mother of six says she is one of the oldest pickers.

“But I am the best! I can go harder than a 20-year-old. The rest of my team call me ‘the machine’.

Townsend says she can fill a bin on her own in less than 20 minutes, and works eight hours a day, seven days a week unless it is raining. If the weather is patchy, she does a half-day but can still earn over $200.

“We tend to go hard when it’s only a few hours on a half-day.

“After a full day I’m tired, but other days I could go until midnight - I get better as the day goes on.

“One time we worked 16 days straight, and we were happy when it rained. I never get sore, but I do rub cream into my wrists and I take Berroca and vitamins.”

Townsend says it can be hard for people to keep their pace up all day.

“After smoko it’s hard to get motivated again. The rows are long and orchards can be very hilly, but people encourage each other as no-one wants slow pickers in their team.”

Employed by Kiwifruit Industries, she works in orchards around Te Puke and says while newcomers start every week, some of them simply don’t work out.

“If you are new and haven’t picked before, you might go on an hourly rate from $24 to $26 while you learn the ropes.

“I always get pulled in to help train them because good picking is not about speed, it’s about technique.

“You have to put the bag tight and high on your body and hold your shoulders upright, so your arms are doing the work. I have done body building, so I know how to position my body. You do have to be fit, but it is learning a good technique that gets you the big money.”

The fruit needs to be picked and bagged correctly, she says.

“There are teams that I don’t work with that make are even making $80 an hour, but at that rate I don’t think they are doing it properly. They will be dropping fruit, bruising it or not taking the stalks off.”

Good pickers develop a technique that enables them to pick quickly without damaging the fruit, she says.

“Some people pick it up faster than others. We have a girl in our team that’s 45 kg and she’s a great picker.

“You make friends - the team becomes like a family. We have a giggle, we chat, and when you are on family-owned orchards we have great smokos where the orchard owners provide pumpkin soups, sausage rolls and scones.”

Townsend has plenty of picking work lined up for the whole harvest, but says some packhouses are so short-staffed at the moment that some weeks they’ve picked more than the post-harvest teams can handle.

Packhouses have been further hit by the ongoing Covid crisis, meaning some days they can be down by hundreds of staff.

Last month post-harvest firm Trevelyn’s estimated that they were operating at 60 per cent, but were still getting the job done by moving shifts around and getting office workers and bosses to pitch in.

Packhouses such as Seeka, EastPack and Trevelyan’s are also competing for workers, and have upped their pay rates accordingly.

Wages start from $24 per hour plus holiday pay and incentives, which vary from each packhouse.

They also include bonuses, free transport, spot prizes for fuel or food vouchers, subsidised food, and wellness programmes.

-Stuff/Annemarie Quill.




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2 Comments

"Good Team" Search

Posted on 08-04-2022 05:35 | By Thats Nice

How do you find out which are the good teams to work for? That’s what’s making people hesitant to move to picking because they’re not sure who to approach for work. Good on you Trish - hard work in a good gang can be great.

Shameless

Posted on 07-04-2022 17:23 | By Johnney

So a 52 year old put a young person to shame. There is a can do attitude out there, but appears to be lacking in a lot of our young work force.

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