Australia's peak meat industry processor body has called for urgent action on skill shortages, ahead of the annual spring lamb flush in the southern states.
Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive Patrick Hutchinson said processors were "very concerned" about continuing, and looming, workforce shortages.
"At this stage we are not hearing specific concerns, however we know that an increase in numbers, whilst fantastic, presents challenges with current workforce numbers," Mr Hutchinson said.
"It's a massive issue - 50 per cent of lambs are processed in Victoria so there are farmers in SA, Tasmania and NSW who also rely on that processing capacity.
"Two years of poor policy around the food processing workforce in that state [Victoria] - via pandemic management - was completely misguided and political in the extreme and showed it had an impact from farmers through to the consumer."
Mr Hutchinson said 65 per cent of members were operating at between 50 and 80pc of capacity
He said 80pc of members said lack of overseas workers was the main reason for staff shortages, across the processing, manufacturing and retail sector.
AMIC wanted to see the federal government introduce a dedicated meat industry visa program, to support the vitality and sustainability of the red meat and pork industry.
"What we have asked for is that every federal and state department needs to start to recognise that processing capacity is a major concern, because we don't have enough people," Mr Hutchinson said.
"We have been saying that all along.
"This is not a scenario that is solved quickly, by local people, as much as unions and other commentators want us to do that."
AMIC had carried out an extensive advertising campaign to encourage regional residents to think of working in the industry in a highly-skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled capacity, Mr Hutchinson said.
"Now you see forecasters like the MLA, Thomas Elder or Mecardo talking about capacity in processing, for the first time in history truly that has to start waking everybody up," he said.
He said processors could cope with one to two week spikes in throughput.
"But if starts to be the norm, rather than a specific point in time, we have some big issues," he said,
AMIC continued to try and find the balance between local and overseas workers.
"All we want is a permanent workforce," he said.
"There needs to be recognition of the need for a balanced, blended international and domestic workforce stream.
"This is about food security, it's an investment that needs to be made on food security and supply chain stability and viability."
Mr Hutchinson called for an end to partisanship over using an international workforce.
The argument about using overseas workers because they were cheaper was a "fallacy", he said.
"Costs to obtain visa workers is prohibitive, including the application of the Skilling Australia Fund levy which does not benefit the post farm gate supply chain," AMIC has told the federal government.
Victorian Farmers Federation Livestock Group vice president and Ballan prime-lamb producer Scott Young said he was concerned about the capacity of abattoirs to cope with the coming spring flush.
"We saw it last year when our kill went over a lot more months than it usually does and it looks like, from everybody I've been talking to this year, that we are going to have a lot higher lambing percentage and there is concern around are we going to be able to process that stock," Mr Young said.
"We've worked hard, over the last few years, to get some really good export, as well as domestic demand, for our product - are we able to being able to process that product?"
He said there could be an impact on prices, as a result.
"It may mean we have to carry that stock longer, we may have to buy in feed, are we going to have those lambs are the right weight, for the contracts we have, things like that," he said.
He called on governments to focus on worker shortages as a priority.
Badaginnie prime lamb producer Peter Holmes said he marked 3500 lambs, this year, more than ever before.
He said there would be a knock-on effect from further disruptions with the public holidays for the Queen's funeral and AFL Grand Final.
While not a lot of lambs were being processed now, as it had been cold and wet, there were concerns as to what would happen later next month.
"Time will tell, I suppose," Mr Holmes said.
"Abattoirs are short of staff and haven't got the capacity they normally have."
Mr Holmes, who is currently in the White Cliffs area, NSW, said the other concern was that thousands of Dorpers from that region were also likely to "flood the market."
"If you can't get them into the works directly, there is always the market - so you put them in there, close your eyes, hold your breath and hope for the best," he said.
"While the meatworks can buy them at the markets, they are not going to pay over the odds.
"And I understand they are not giving any contracts out, its a weekly price, they are giving at the moment."
Thomas Elder Markets analyst Matt Dalgleish said increased stock numbers would start to hit the markets with the spring flush, in late October and November.
"I don't know if we have the capacity to deal with that, really," Mr Dalgleish said.
"Even if you get some of these guest workers in from the Pacific the training programs to get them up to scratch take three times as long as for staff who are more familiar with the work, like Filipinos, who are able to transition much, much more quickly."
He said automation of part of the works process was one way of alleviating some of the "pinch points".
"But you still have areas where you have to have people and those are the ones where there are bottlenecks," he said.
"It's not going to be a quick and easy solution.
"We saw what happened with price when they got flooded with animals through the foot and mouth disease scare, there is only so much they can do as a processor.
"If there is too much stock at the one time, we are going to see strong reactions in price."
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt:said years of inaction by the former government had meant employers right around the country were struggling to find workers, while the backlog of visa applications hit nearly one million.
"That's why the government is taking action now, by lifting the migration cap to 195,000 people, speeding up visa applications and bringing forward 180,000 fee-free TAFE places - all of which will benefit our ag sector," Mr Watt said.
"We are also expanding and strengthening the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme and establishing a tripartite ag working group to bring together industry, unions and government to find sensible workforce solutions.
"We are committed to working with industry, including AMIC, to look at viable solutions and will continue to listen to any good ideas that industry raise."
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