Seafood exporter Sealord will take a NZD 5 million (€3.1 million/$3.2 million) loss in its Nelson wetfish processing factory this hoki season as New Zealand's labor shortage continues to take a toll on the seafood sector and other industries.
In response to the looming loss, Sealord CEO Doug Paulin took the measure of asking Nelson and Auckland administrative staff to volunteer to work in the factory, which is about 300 workers short, taking shifts himself to further highlight the issue.
Paulin told IntraFish the initiative has worked really well and also "assisted with morale in the factory."
But he also said the loss is still going to occur and that "despite trying many things, it now is pretty much fait accompli."
There are two components to New Zealand's worker shortage, which is hitting other seafood companies as well as other industries, hard.
The first is that COVID-19 and the relatively late arrival of the fast-spreading omicron variant to New Zealand's shores have made people sick.
At its Auckland processing factory - the largest of five - fellow seafood company Sanford has consistently had 50 percent of its staff out sick since January, which by June had reduced output from up to 190 metric tons of whitefish in a week to just 100, CEO Peter Reidie told IntraFish at the time.
While Sealord has largely avoided any major spread of the virus among its staff thanks to daily PCR testing, it is strongly feeling the impact of the second, more worrying component of the crisis: the actual lack of people to work in factories and vessels.
"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," Paulin told the New Zealand Herald.
"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."
As a small island nation, New Zealand has always relied on working holiday visas for its labor force, particularly in industries such as seafood processing.
But with borders only fully opening this month after a two year shutdown, that influx of labor has disappeared.
From its Nelson, New Zealand, base, Sealord's wetfish factory processes hoki from May to September and other key species such as orange roughy, dory and ling throughout the year.
In the same location, its coated factory produces products such as battered hoki, fish fingers and crumbed dory fillets all year round, which are sold in New Zealand and Australia and exported around the world.
Paulin said before the pandemic 90 percent of hoki season workers were on working visas.
However young New Zealanders' unwillingness to do some labor roles in the primary industry was also a factor, with COVID exacerbating what is a long-term issue for the industry and the country at large.