Spotlight on updated 2021 data

The 2021 tax year workforce numbers have been added to this website as part of our on-going commitment to monitor and evaluate changes in the food and fibre workforce. This 2021 update covers the period from April 2020 until March 2021.

This data shows changes to the workforce during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures. This spotlight presents analysis about what the workforce looked like in that year, comparing it to 2019 and 2020.

What’s covered?

We look at:

  • annual and monthly employment counts;
  • changes in workforce numbers across the food and fibre sectors;
  • changes in employee and self-employment numbers; and
  • changes in numbers of people on working holiday and other visa numbers and visa status (because of the border closures)

Feature Summary

The full findings, including graphs showing workforce trends, can be downloaded at the link below.

The spotlight document provides an analysis of the food and fibre workforce for the year ended 31 March 2021.  The 2021 tax year update captures data from the initial COVID-19 lockdown and border closures period. The spotlight document provides analysis of the workforce changes between 2019 and 2021.

Overall, the number of people that were employed across the food of fibre sector was similar to the year ending March 2020. The total annual average number of people employed in the food and fibre sector was down slightly by 0.6% to 358,000 from 360,000 in 2020.

However, annual averages do not tell the full story, the seasonality and diversity of sectors, and roles within the whole sector, mean it is important to look at a range of variables to understand any changes more fully.

The data was broken-down by monthly employment counts, and by sector, value chain analysis, visa status (because of the border closures) and self-employed or employee status. When looking at monthly shifts in the numbers we have observed changes in temporary worker visa types, particularly in the horticulture sector and more generally in the numbers of self-employed people.

The number of people on temporary work visas did not materially change in 2021 compared to the years immediately preceding. This may have been because of New Zealand’s relatively free COVID-19 status and the ability of people to extend their visas.

The number of people on Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) visas was higher than average in the winter months because of visa extensions, and because many workers were unable to return to their Pacific countries due to the constrained availability of commercial flights at the time.

At the time the COVID-19 lockdowns were put in place there were large numbers of working holiday workers already in the country. As the year progressed, the working holiday number in the food and fibre sector fell by 6,800 from 8,100 in April 2020 to 1,300 by March 2021.

In many sectors, there was a reduction in workforce numbers early in the lockdown period compared to previous years. We have not found any evidence to support why this was the case.


Self-employment numbers are slightly lower than previous years and it is unclear on what has driven this metric downwards. Stats NZ’s Linked Employer-Employee Data (LEED) data suggests that this self-employment phenomenon is not isolated to just the food & fibre sector.

The year ahead (2022 tax year)

This data is for the March 2021 tax year. The impacts of COVID-19 will likely continue to be felt beyond the 2021 year. We will continue to explore this impact as new data becomes available.