Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Dairy staffing tensions mount

Neal Wallace
Shortages on one hand and difficult working conditions on the other roil sector.
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The Southland Rural Support Trust is fielding double the number of calls it usually handles from dairy workers seeking help with employment issues.

Stress levels appear to be growing throughout the dairy industry, with sector leaders also reporting an increase in farm owners, sharemilkers and managers seeking help due to staff shortages and squeezed budgets.

Compared to a year earlier, the Southland Rural Support Trust has for the second consecutive quarter had a doubling in the number of calls from dairy workers seeking employment help and advice.

Between August and November the organisation received 31 new cases, twice as many as in the same quarter a year earlier, a trend the trust’s Southland wellness co-ordinator Rachael Nicholson said was repeated in the quarter just ended.

Most of the cases she is dealing with relate to employment issues and are predominantly from farms that are corporate-owned or have absentee owners.

DairyNZ people manager Jane Muir said the organisation’s annual employee survey also reveals a slight increase in concerns from employees working for corporate-owned farms.

Nicholson said some corporate owners are exceptional employers but others have been found wanting with managers promoted too quickly, and lacking the training and skills to manage staff.

“It happened during covid when they were pushed into a position they were not ready for and do not have the skills to deal with staff.”

She is dealing with employees who have inadequate or no employment contract, live in substandard conditions, are expected to work long hours, are given inadequate time off and where little heed is paid to their health and wellbeing.

Some workers are new the area, do not have friends or family and are unable to cook a wholesome meal but do not get adequate pastoral care from managers or owners.

Nicholson said there are excellent owners or managers who take an interest in the wellbeing of their staff, supplying meals during busy periods such as calving to ensure staff are eating well and get to share a weekly evening meal with their family.

“A lot of people do it really well but there is a portion who do not do it well,” she said.

Southland’s dairy industry has a significant number of migrant workers and Nicholson said communicating with those who have English as a second language requires innovation.

Traditional verbal instructions can be misunderstood but emails or messaging can allow the staff member to translate into their native language.

“Sometimes a migrant worker can be too scared to ask questions.”

Listen to “News Roundup | Uptick in dairy workers seeking support” on Spreaker.

Southland Federated Farmers dairy chair Jason Herrick said the corporate or absentee farm ownership structure can be a barrier to owners connecting with staff.

He said some owners are excellent employers but others treat their workers as numbers.

“The problem the industry has got is that there are a lot of corporate owners and the corporate model is based around numbers and a focus on profit instead of people,” Herrick said.

He has been contacted by workers saying are not being listened to, expected to work long hours due to staff shortages or they are struggling with technology.

Neil Bateup, the Rural Support Trust’s Waikato chair, said they are fielding more inquiries from dairy farmers who are struggling with a shortage of staff and a lack of relief milkers so farmers can take time off.

“It is a growing problem.”

But he said these issues should not detract from the large number of excellent employers and employees.

“There are a heck of a lot of good people on farms and there are real opportunities for young people to build careers and their asset base.

“This is just a blip along the way, which I hope will not detract from those opportunities.”

An exceptional growing season is easing the pain for many farmers but stress levels are increasing as they deal with financial and staffing pressures.

Waikato Federated Farmers dairy chair Matthew Zonderop said stress levels are higher than usual as farmers battle squeezed incomes and rising costs.

“Even though we have got grass and making lots of supplementary feed, but this is masking the high cost of production.”

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