Meat processors expect to lose $600 million of export income this season by not being able to fully process carcases due to a second consecutive year of labour shortages.
The sector needs about 2000 workers, a situation processors describe as chronic, similar to last year and compounded by staff absenteeism due to covid.
Companies have recruited about 1000 staff from abroad for this season with more arriving, but this is already causing delays for farmers wanting stock processed.
The Meat Industry Association and Federated Farmers said more meat workers must be allowed into New Zealand.
“Ultimately, we will need overseas workers to make up the shortfall,” association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said.
Alliance Group manufacturing manager Willie Wiese said low unemployment and insufficient labour in the regions where it operates means it cannot run plants at the desired capacity or meet all its customer orders.
This is especially significant in filling its chilled lamb programme to the United Kingdom and Europe.
“We are leveraging our processing network to reduce the impact on capacity and have recruitment plans underway to help make up the shortfall, including promoting opportunities to work at the co-operative in our local communities and employing approximately 200 migrant workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and China,” Wiese said.
Silver Fern Farms has redeployed some North Island staff to its Finegand plant in South Otago to alleviate the shortage, as well as recruiting 360 offshore workers so far in addition to 250 already working here.
Delays in processing visas and uncertain flight availability has hindered their arrival, but they will be deployed to where there is the greatest demand.
A further 265 offshore workers will be joining Silver Fern Farms in the coming months.
Karapeeva also wants changes to immigration settings to address the shortage along with more timely processing of visas to ensure workers arrive at the right time of the season.
Halal butchers have been added to the government’s immigration Green List work-to-residency tier, but Karapeeva would like a special halal butcher visa category established.
“The system needs to be significantly more aligned and responsive to the needs of our businesses,” she said.
Karapeeva said despite recruitment campaigns, investment in attracting and retaining talent and supporting training and development opportunities, companies are still finding it difficult to attract people.
SFF’s chief supply chain officer, Dan Boulton, said contrasting weather patterns mean higher numbers of animals are coming off farms earlier than previous seasons, which has been compounded by the labour shortage.
“Most of our processing sites are now running at planned capacity, and we will be moving livestock across our network to maximise the available capacity,” said Boulton.
“It will however take some time to work through the backlog from disruption over the past few months, and we will be prioritising areas affected by the dry conditions and our fully shared and loyal suppliers.”
Federated Farmers board member Toby Williams also wants a loosening of the border restrictions so more workers can be recruited abroad.
“From a farmer’s perspective, opening the borders is crucial to get workers in and it means more money for the country at a time when we need it,” he said.
AgriHQ senior analyst Mel Croad said demand for killing space will increase in the coming months, and this could be accentuated by the staffing shortages.
A wet summer means North Island farmers have options but the South Island is starting to dry, which could create pressure for space.