Monday, April 22, 2024

Primary sector faces migrant workforce exodus

Neal Wallace
The primary sector workforce is being squeezed by an exodus of migrant dairy farm staff and backpackers and those struggling to find NZ workers. Tighter immigration laws have stalled the processing of residency applications, generating uncertainty among 200 foreign dairy farm workers, prompting many to return home or move to other countries.
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The primary sector workforce is being squeezed by an exodus of migrant dairy farm staff and backpackers and those struggling to find NZ workers.

Tighter immigration laws have stalled the processing of residency applications, generating uncertainty among 200 foreign dairy farm workers, prompting many to return home or move to other countries.

Southland dairy farmer Jason Herrick has lost one Filipino worker and is about to lose another who, having been apart from their families for two and a half years while waiting for residency to be considered, have given up waiting.

Pandemic controls have added to staffing difficulties with the Government freezing managed isolation quarantine (MIQ) bookings, which could delay until the new year the arrival of 200 exempted foreign dairy workers and skilled seasonal workers such as machinery operators.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi was unable to respond to questions by deadline, but has previously stated the Government is resetting policy.

“We want to work with sectors and see them develop plans to attract, train and upskill Kiwis into roles and invest in productivity changes that can help them move away from a reliance on low-paid and low-skilled migrant workers,” Faafoi said at the time.

Some meat plants are short 100 staff – Silver Fern Farms is seeking 1600 for the season peak alone – and the industry needs about 100 halal butchers essential for the $3.3 billion trade.

Of particular concern is the lack of halal butchers, who enable 43% of our red meat exports to be sold to Muslim consumers.

The horticulture industry is finalising quarantine-free access for 14,400 workers from Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa under the recognised seasonal employer scheme (RSE), but there are questions whether it will be sufficient.

The ongoing labour shortage will impact the wine industry, with a significant but unquantified number of vines unpruned last season, reducing yield.

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle says the Government has exempted 50 farm assistants and 150 herd or assistant managers, but the senior role has a requirement for an annual salary of $79,500 for a 40-hour week, which is proving a disincentive to fill.

Federated Farmers board member Chris Lewis says that salary is about 30% higher than market rates.

Mackle says in this case immigration rather than employment rules apply, meaning hours worked in addition to the 40 hours have to be paid at an hourly rate.

The result is that there have only been 30 applications for senior roles but 55 applications for farm assistants.

“There is a big gap between the Government’s aspirations and where the market is right now, which is why we are not seeing so much demand,” Mackle said.

He says the quickest and easiest solution to the dairy worker shortage is to grant residency to long-serving foreign workers, recognising their sacrifice and contribution to the industry and communities.

Mackle has been told many plans to leave NZ, having waited up to three years to have residency applications considered but which are now on hold, which will exacerbate the labour shortage.

Herrick says one of his workers is going to Australia, which is offering migrants in selected industries a four-year work to residency programme and the other is returning to the Philippines.

He says his two workers planned to return to the Philippines over winter but stayed because of uncertainty they would get MIQ spaces when they returned.

He is angry the Government has not been more transparent with its long-term immigration plans and for allocating MIQ space to sporting teams and entertainers, but not essential dairy workers.

“What we are facing is all because the Government is not prepared to make a commitment to the primary sector and this is the result,” Herrick said.

DairyNZ has estimated the industry is short of up to 2000 workers and Herrick says Southland, which struggles to recruit locals, is home to about 1000 foreign workers.

In July Minister Kris Faafoi announced extensions to those holding Essential Skills visas and Working Holiday and Supplementary Seasonal Employment visas.

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