Staff shortages among rural contractors is so dire that many in the industry fear it could result in serious accidents.
Rural contractors are warning that the lack of experienced staff and the massive volume of work being pushed on them this spring could lead to fatal consequences.
Demand for their services was stretching the industry beyond breaking point and there are fears it may lead to injury or death to themselves or a member of the public.
Several rural contractors and MPs held an emergency meeting at Te Poi in Waikato to find solutions for an industry facing a worker crisis.
The contractors also feared if there was an accident, the subsequent WorkSafe investigation would have negative consequences for their industry.
Waikato Federated Farmers arable chair Keith Holmes says the shortages meant the industry was skating on thin ice.
“Someone’s going to get killed and what we don’t want is the industry closed down by overt compliance requirements,” Holmes said.
Prior to the covid-19 border closures, the industry relied on experienced machinery operators from the Northern Hemisphere to work tractors, harvesters and other farm machinery to make silage and sow and then harvest summer crops.
Former Waikato Federated Farmers dairy chair Ben Moore feared the pressure being put on contractors could lead to them unwittingly cutting corners around health and safety causing harm to themselves or a member of the public.
“It concerns me the pressures it’s putting on you guys, the pressures it’s putting on the full-time staff and the community as well,” Ben Moore.
He says the assistance the industry provided to drought-stricken farmers showed the important role contractors played in New Zealand.
BlueGrass Contracting’s Brook Nettleton says he raised the safety issue with Immigration NZ (INZ) when he inquired recently about getting overseas staff into NZ.
He says he was told the rural contracting industry was not a time-critical business.
“I said to them, ‘Is it going to take someone getting killed – and it might be one of us or a staff member – is it going to take that before something is done?’” Nettleton said.
Compounding the issue was the wet weather over the past few weeks had caused further delays.
Nettleton says he was also struggling to maintain the servicing of his vehicles during this peak period because his engineering staff had been called in to help drive the machines.
Many of the New Zealanders being trained to work the machinery who had been hired were often quitting after a few days. Those wanting to keep working are too inexperienced to be left unsupervised.
It took at least three years to properly train a contractor to use their machinery. Industry training initiatives such as Ag Drive were great ideas, but he says they did not address the staffing shortages the industry was facing.
“It doesn’t fix the problem now and we can’t have 10 newbies,” he said.
Contractors could only employ about three inexperienced staff because the job required people to work independently.
Te Awamutu contractor John Austin says training contractors was similar to training dairy farming staff – both industries needed people who loved the lifestyle and saw it as more than just a job.
“The industry has worked tirelessly in training people and the training ideas are great and I think we should continue with that, but our priority at the moment is to try and crack open the door and let people in now,” Austin said.
“From where I sit, that’s the only chance to stop a major issue like a bad accident.”
Rural Contractors NZ president Helen Slattery says the industry had to prove to the Government there was a skills gap to get more workers into the country.
Contractors could show that by using the Hanzon app, which records and documents their staff’s work and the hours they work.
“That’s going to show there is a massive skill gap between the learners and the skilled operators,” Slattery said.
The industry had to find the best strategy from INZ to get more drivers into NZ. This had been an incredibly frustrating process because INZ kept on changing the goalposts, she said.
Holmes says farmers, in the meantime, can help the industry by cutting out dumb behaviour.
They needed to be upfront with how many paddocks they wanted to work on for a particular job.
Too often farmers were booking a job involving an agreed number of paddocks, only to then ask the contractor to do extra while they were on the farm.
The difficulty of availability of contractors was also seeing some book multiple contractors for the same job and picking the first one that turned up, wasting the time of the others who had turned up.