Labour shortage dramas

Sheep producers, horticulturalists hit hardest by labor shortages

Coronavirus
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Agricultural labor shortage woes are likely to continue for some time.

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SHEARING WOES: Shearing has been pushed back by up to two months, on some properties, due to labour shortages.

SHEARING WOES: Shearing has been pushed back by up to two months, on some properties, due to labour shortages.

Sheep shearing contractors say they are concerned the massive labour shortage, brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, is now having an impact on worker's health.

The inability of New Zealand shearers to come to Australia has seen the season pushed out by up to two months, with pressure on workers and farmers alike.

Roger Pearse, Ararat, runs a contracting business in Victoria and said 2020 had turned out to be a "nightmare".

"You have people who carry on about animal welfare and it certainly has put a lot more pressure on, particularly with the wet weather and a few warm days, which is causing problems with flies," Mr Pearse said.

"We've had a couple of farmers who have lost sheep because of the flies."

Farmers also wanted to put rams out, so needed ewes to be shorn, and feared they would be penalised if fleeces were too long.

"We are hammering the hell out of our guys to try and get the job done," he said.

"We are having a lot of drama with guys getting hurt.

"Because they are so tired, and they are pushing themselves so hard, they've either hurt their back or their arm, because they have been using the handpiece so hard."

Mr Pearse said he was 15-16 shearers short, 12 from New Zealand and three or four from the UK.

"We are around six weeks behind, but I have heard of contractors who are two months behind, and are really stressed," he said.

He said the answer was more training, to ensure a local workforce was at hand.

"It's just a matter of more training, and trying to encourage a lot of the younger ones to take up what is really a professional sport, really," he said.

Earlier this year, Shearing Contractors Association of Australia (SCAA) secretary Jason Letchford said there was the potential for 10 per cent of the nation's sheep flock to miss out on being shorn, or significant delays in taking the wool off.

"Arguably, spring is the peak, but because they are four to eight weeks late for their regular shearing contractor to turn up, they now have fly strike problems," Mr Letchford said.

"There is a lot of grass seed around and the above average rainfalls have really delayed things.

"What was normally a spring shearing season is bumping into crop harvesting, it's been a very tough end of year."

Early warning

In late June, peak bodies including the SCAA and the Western Australian Shearing Industry Association, asked the federal government to expedite the approval of visa applications for shearers and shedhands travelling to Australia for spring.

In a survey WoolProducers Austraia conducted to understand the impact coronavirus had had on growers' businesses, 41.2pc of respondents indicated that they, or the contractors that they employed, sourced overseas staff during a 12-month period.

Mr Letchford said the industry didn't want to say 'I told you so'.

"But the reality is if you are a summer or late spring shearing wool or meat producer, you were not watching the headlines back then," he said.

"But it's unfortunately come home to roost, and there is a real panic out there amongst small producers.

"There are producers who more or less go too tender each year, and they have really struggled in this labor shortage environment."

There was one silver lining, in that more than 100 new entrants had been trained in the south-west of Victoria and south-eastern South Australia.

"We are hopeful 2021 won't look anything like what 2020 did, but what we need to ensure now is what we have learned from our mistakes, in that we are too reliant on an overseas labour force," he said.

Mr Letchford said the industry now needed to look at a five and 10-year plan.

"The trend line for labour in all of agriculture, but specifically wool, is frightening," he said.

"Twenty years ago we had around 12,000 shearers, we are now around 2800 shearers."

He said the industry needed to do a better job of training, attraction and retaining shearers.

"Some of the conditions are controllable, the huts, the amenities, we can't control the weather or distance to work, but we can go back and make amenities more attractive," he said.

"When you are working on mining sites, or for the local council, you go home to wifi, you go home to air conditioning.

"If we are going to be competitive, you can't just go for the bare basics."

He said annualising pay, flexibility of shearing dates and the size of sheep were also issues.

Horticultural worries

And the troubles aren't over yet for Victoria's fruit and vegetable producers either, who are still seeking quarantine clarity on Pacific Islander workers.

Consultancy firm Ernst & Young found Shepparton and north-west Victoria were expected to be hardest hit by worker shortages.

With the state government insisting its preferred option for the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme is using Northern Territory quarantine facilities, horticultural industry leaders warned time was running out.

Premier Daniel Andrews has denied it was a matter of expense or cost in quarantining Pacific Islander workers in Victoria.

"We do not have an unlimited supply of workers and others, hotels even, to provide that highest standard, best-in-class standard, hotel quarantine," Mr Andrews told parliament.

Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes said the government was continuing to urgently progress plans to bring Pacific Island workers to Victoria.

And Ms Symes said in light of National Cabinet's recent decision, the government would consider all options.

"It's wrong to say that Victoria is dragging the chain on international seasonal workers, we are actively investigating Northern Territory quarantine arrangements with the Northern Territory government," she said.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said National Cabinet had sought to reaffirm and streamline processes to bring in workers under the Pacific Labor Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program.

"We know there are 22,000 pre-vetted workers from the Pacific available to help with harvest," Mr Littleproud said.

But Fruit Growers Victoria chairman Mitchell McNab said the sticking point on bringing Pacific Island workers to the state was cost.

The state government's preferred option, using Northern Territory quarantine facilities, would cost $8000 a worker.

Mr McNab said plans to attract local workers did not appear to be successful.

"So now we are leaning pretty heavily on the feds, to try and get the Pacific Islander Seasonal Worker Program up, so they can encourage getting some people over in February or March at the latest," he said.

"The reality is we are getting closer and closer to the tipping point and no one is putting their hand up, and saying lets do something properly."

He said growers who had used the program before were prepared to pay some of the cost.

"For my orchard, I need 20 workers, that's a huge number to pay up front to get those workers here," he said.

"I think the government should pay half that cost, if not more."

He said pickers were required from the first to second weeks in February, through to March.

"Then there will be another peak, at the end of March to early April," he said.

"There's no reason why they couldn't quarantine on farm, or in neighbouring hubs, there are ways in which that can be done to reduce that cost to growers as well."

He said growers understood there was a risk involved.

"But there is a greater risk involved to us, if we can't harvest our crops," he said.

Shepparton orchardist Peter Hall said he was concerned it was getting too late to bring in overseas workers, but that would become evident in late January to early February

Mr Hall said it was unrealistic to think things could be done over the Christmas break.

"I think Victoria has missed the boat," he said.

Shepparton Independent MP Suzanna Sheed said the shortage of seasonal workers across Victoria was extremely worrying for growers, many of whom have bumper crops and have been facing years of drought, fluctuating overseas markets and high water prices.

"Much has been said and done to incentivise local workers to become fruit pickers, but as February and March - the peak picking period for pears and apples in my region - nears it is critical that a solution is found."

She said the Pacific Islander seasonal workers program was extremely important, particularly in the absence of the usual backpacker cohort.

There was a strong economic imperative to bring Pacific Islander workers to assist with the harvest, just as there were strong economic reasons for ensuring that overseas tennis players were in Australia for the Australian Open, at much the same time.

"The federal government should send the federal Chief Health Officer to the Pacific Island nations that have been declared COVID-free to ascertain their status," she said.

"If those nations prove their COVID-free status, then include them in an Australia travel bubble, so seasonal workers can travel to Victoria without the need to quarantine."

"Otherwise the federal and state governments need to urgently work on a mass quarantine scheme to ensure that the state's fruit and vegetables can be harvested in a COVID-safe way."

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