The federal government’s sudden cancellation of the 457 skilled migrant visa program is spreading uncertainty and concern among dairy industry players.
Large scale dairies milking hundreds, or thousands, of cows are particularly vulnerable to the rule changes for migrant workers which will potentially double costs and the time taken to recruit skilled managers and dairy technicians.
Dairy Connect chief executive officer, Shaughn Morgan, said new applicants must now show they have at least two year’s work experience in their field to be eligible for temporary work visas.
However, the changes lacked detail or explanations, leaving dairy families to speculate on how they would address professional staffing challenges this year.
Dairy farmer, Ruth Kydd, whose family, including two sons, milk 1200 cows on irrigated country at Finlay in southern NSW, is particularly uneasy about the future for one of the eight employees currently working at the family farm.
“We have one worker on a 457 visa who’s been with us for four years,” she said.
“He has two years to run on his visa but after that we have no idea what will happen to him and we’re all very concerned.”
“There really is no pool of local labour, particularly skilled labour,” said Mrs Kydd, whose enterprise on "Avonmore", relies heavily on skilled visa workers.
Overseas workers, from backgrounds as diverse as the Philippines, North America, Brazil and the UK, fill roles that simply could not be filled locally.
She said a decade ago Finlay High School had around 600 enrolments, but school leavers seeking local work were harder to find now as student numbers had halved.
The Kydds also employ Masters degree graduates who sign up for a year in Australia on training visas, gaining valuable hands-on dairy experience.
“Some of them are really excellent. We’d like to employ some full time to run our dairy,” she said.
The training program is counter balanced with Australian tertiary exchange students receiving similar exposure to overseas dairy operations.
The lack of detail in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement has hit at a critical time for the Kydds’ business as it head towards calving in June and July.
“It’s obviously going to make it get harder to get people, and more paperwork” Mrs Kydd said.
Dairy Connect’s farmers’ group chairman, Graham Forbes, said large-scale open barn or feedlot-style dairies were increasingly the basis for milk production in Australia.
Big milking operations were undergoing rapid change with new technology and the dairy industry needed access to skilled people who could share their knowledge and experience.
Mr Forbes, whose family milks 800 cows on a pasture-based enterprise at Gloucester on the NSW Mid North Coast, has also employed 457 visa workers.
“I’m confident in saying diary producers are not abusing the system,” he said.
“There are serious benefits in this system and now all we have is uncertainty.”