Seasonal Workers in 20th Century Motueka
Motueka has long been a highly productive agricultural region, with a focus on tobacco, hops and apples. The region has often struggled to meet the demand for labour, particularly at peak harvest times.
Even with mechanisation agricultural work remained very labour intensive - especially fruit picking and tobacco. At first the work load could be handled by the family on the farm, with some help from the neighbours, but as production expanded more and more workers were needed. Advertisements luring people to sunny Motueka for a harvesting holiday were broadcast all over New Zealand, the army was called in and workers were even flown in from Fiji to meet the demand. Of course, not all at once, but various recruitment schemes were a feature for most of the twentieth century. Countless people passed through Motueka during harvest season, the following is only a glimpse into their lives.
Calling in the Army
The Second World War caused a disruption in daily life, to say the least. Many growers and their sons were called up to serve overseas and wartime pressures to save money and restrictions on shipping called on the tobacco growers to produce more leaf for local consumption. While the Tobacco Board was able to get a few growers exempted, on the basis of their niche expertise, this still left a labour shortage. Many of the would-be seasonal workers were also overseas and the women who stayed behind were working the full time jobs left vacant by the soldiers.
After some negotiating, The Tobacco Board managed to arrange for territorial soldiers to help with the 1941-1942 harvest. Camps were set up at the Motueka Beach Camp, Richmond Show Grounds and the Pokororo Hall among others. The soldiers lived in tents and traveled to the farms in army vehicles. Many of the soldiers found the work exhausting and had trouble keeping up with experienced workers. Wages were paid directly to the army.
The wartime labour shortage made it clear that farmers had to be more proactive about recruitment. Growers were resistant to the idea at first, ignoring questionnaires sent out to gauge the number of workers needed, but by the 1950's they realised they needed to advertise.
Pleas to the Department of Labour for a dedicated labour office in Motueka were to no avail, but Drury & Bradley Accounting were subcontracted to do the recruiting as a compromise. Advertisements were taken out in newspapers, on the radio and in cinemas. There was even a £4 travel subsidy if workers stayed on for at least four weeks to sweeten the deal.
In 1962 the Department of Labour finally relented, opening up a full time seasonal labour office in Motueka in January 1963 with M.M. (Snow) Glynan at the helm. In addition to advertising, Glynan also made trips out to areas such as the Bay of Plenty, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay to recruit potential workers.
Influx of North Island Māori sparks a cultural renaissance
The recruitment efforts saw many North Island Māori come to the Nelson region in search of seasonal work in the 1940's and 50's. The region didn’t have the resources necessary to support such an influx at first, but Māori Welfare Officer Kia Riwai worked to develop a better sense of community in the region.
The cultural renaissance eventually led to the building of a new modern Marae. Hau School was purchased in 1955, moved to Pah St and reopened as Te Awhina Marae after renovations.
Workers gone Wild
The 1950's and 60's attracted a rowdier bunch of seasonal workers giving locals headaches and entertainment in almost equal measure. Young New Zealanders looking for a break from conservative urban society, and overseas visitors wanting a working holiday, were drawn to the region for the summer.
Seasonal workers descended on the town’s bars, dance-halls and movie theatres in droves dressed to the nines on Friday nights turning Motueka into another world. A few locals would park on High St just to watch the ‘exotic goings-on.’ Stories of fights, fires and mayhem abound but the town’s only policeman, Constable Bob Smith, worked hard to keep things in line. He even went so far as to turn away known trouble makers before they got off the bus at the start of the season.
Watch a clip of Selwyn Toogood's 1964 interview with a Motueka pub keeper about seasonal workers via Te Ara.
The Fijian Work Scheme
Some 300 Fijians were flown into New Zealand between 1971 and 1981 as part of this scheme. Growers paid for airfares in advance and then recouped the costs through wage deductions. Most Fijians saw the scheme as a chance to earn money to send home, something which local retailers resented.
In 1960 local shop keepers reported earning £700 per week during the harvest compared to just £50 in the off season, so you can understand why they would have been concerned. Seasonal workers brought in a lot of money.
Over the course of the decade locals got used to the friendly, polite Fijians and they are remembered as being stable and reliable: very desirable traits when compared to other workers who rarely stayed the whole season. Many of the Fijians developed excellent relationships with the growers. Some growers even visited their former employees while on holiday in Fiji. None of the Fijian workers ended up settling permanently in the area and the programme was discontinued in 1981, when pressure from increasing unemployment within New Zealand made the scheme unfavourable.
Late Twentieth Century
Tobacco is no longer grown in the region but fruit growing remains strong, attracting backpackers and seasonal workers from near and far even today.
This article is based on research complied for an exhibit on tobacco at the Motueka District Museum in 2013.
2013. Updated May 2020
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Further sources - Seasonal Workers in 20th Century Motueka
- O'Shea, P. K. (1997). The Golden Harvest : A History of Tobacco Growing in New Zealand, Christchurch, N.Z.: Hazard Press
- Mackay, D. (2007) Thai workers make their mark. The Orchardist, 80 (3), p. 28
- These New Zealanders no. 5 Motueka. National Film Unit, 1964. Archives New Zealand – Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga. Accessed 15 April 2013.
- Couch-Snow, Adelaide (2012) Riwai, Te Kiato - Riwai, Te Kiato, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Accessed 25 February 2013
- Motueka's seasonal problem (1968, May 4) Nelson Photo News, p.6
- Nelson's hops and the picking season (1923, November 29) Evening Post, p.7