Last week I discussed the precipitous decline in the total fertility rate of New Zealand’s women: a drop of nearly 22 per cent in only a decade. The current New Zealand TFR is 1.69 children per woman, far below the generally accepted replacement rate of 2.1. This means that, as the large baby boomer generation starts to die off in the next few years, New Zealand will start to see natural population decline.

This places New Zealand in a similar position to many East Asian and European nations: an elderly population that is dying off more quickly than it’s being replaced by a smaller younger generation having fewer babies than the generations before them. However, like many European nations, the chances of New Zealand’s population declining anytime soon is small since migration flows to New Zealand have been positive for the last few years. The population growth between the last two censuses (2013 and 2018) was over 10 per cent and just this year the population hit the 5 million mark, 17 years after it hit 4 million people.

However, relying on migration to prop up one’s population is not necessarily a cast iron strategy: things can come along to reverse migration flows very quickly. Things, like, I don’t know…a global pandemic?

Yes, according to the latest migration figures obtained by New Zealand’s resident demographics expert Paul Spoonley, the six months from March to August this year saw nearly 111,000 more people leave these shores than arrived.

This is probably not going to be a permanent migration shift since many of the people leaving the country were temporary migrant workers whose work visas had expired. Conversely, many of those people who returned during these lockdown months (roughly 350,000) were New Zealand citizens returning home for a safe harbour in a stormy world.

As of September 2020, there are very few Recognised Seasonal employer workers or backpackers left in the country. This spells disaster for some of New Zealand’s biggest economic sectors: tourism; hospitality; and horticulture. Fruit pickers and packers are going to be in high demand from next month, but the current border restrictions, lack of affordable flights and fear of the virus have many concerned that there will be a labour shortage which will cripple our desperately needed economic recovery. According to Spoonley:

“On these arrival and departure trends, there are going to be major workforce supply challenges throughout the summer. This does not factor in the big infrastructural projects which will also need specialist migrant labour”

The scale of the problem can be seen in the Hawke’s Bay, a beautiful, sunny part of the country, near where I grew up, which has a large horticultural and viticulture industry. This one area of New Zealand needs about 10,000 seasonal workers starting next month to pick around $1 billion worth of fruit across the region. Although the Government has announced changes to border rules to allow some temporary visa holders to return if they have strong ongoing links to the country, this will probably not result in enough workers coming to fill the labour demand.

Now in a country in which the unemployment rate is rising, there is always the option of hiring unemployed New Zealanders, which you would think would be the obvious solution. But we shall see if there is any appetite for people to move to the Hawkes Bay to pick fruit.

Who knows what the next few months will bring on the global pandemic panic front. Who knows when “normal” migration flows will return? Who knows when the cost of flights will come down enough to make seasonal temporary visas economically viable? This current wave of migration from New Zealand may be a blip. But it shows the fragility of relying on migration to prop up a country’s population.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...