The Marlborough wine industry’s seasonal workers are stuck in their New Zealand homes as hand harvesting of grapes comes to an end.

Many vineyard workers brought into the country on the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme are approaching the end of their contracts, but cannot fly home during lockdown.

Hortus owner Aaron Jay said his lockdown bubble included about 100 RSE workers living in a 5-hectare purpose-built property.

"Everyone's well. No-one leaves the property except for work, but aside from that it's kind of life as usual," said Jay. "It's a bit weird for them that they can't go into town and walk around, or go to church, but it's only temporary.”

A couple of small crews were finishing off essential tasks in the vineyard, but most of them were just waiting to go home. Hortus had taken several precautions under lockdown to ensure the workers' health. A pastoral manager collected a truckload of groceries once a week for the whole complex.

Jay explained that the completion of the harvest was absolutely essential to both Marlborough’s economy and the national economy.

Wine exports were valued at $1.86 billion in 2019 and were New Zealand's ninth largest export. Marlborough harvested 76.6 per cent of New Zealand's grape harvest in 2019. 

Harvest was confirmed as an essential activity as production of food and beverages.

The industry body circulated a list of safety protocols to ensure the industry was taking all measures to minimise risk of exposure to Covid-19. MPI officials have been monitoring compliance.

It was possible RSE crews could start pruning once harvest was finished, but it is still unclear if pruning would also be considered an essential service.