Monday, April 22, 2024

PULPIT: Workforce response underwhelming

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Farm staff shortages in Southland and around the country are getting worse. While the Government finally bowed to dairy industry pleas and announced border exemptions for 150 management and 50 farm assistant positions, the sector was already under severe workforce gap pressure. The super-busy calving season begins mid-July and it’s unlikely many of the 200 extra migrant staff will be out of managed isolation by then.
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By most industry estimates, the wider dairy sector is short of about 2000 staff – some have said up to 4000. The consequences of the staff shortages on those farms where teams have already been stretched are about to become much, much worse in terms of the mental wellbeing of farmers and farm workers as the stress of long hours and work backlogs mount up.

Burnout at calving and mating time will be the major factor, but animal welfare will also be badly affected.

It’s a bitter irony that the Government on the one hand is telling us to up our game on the winter grazing front, including making sure calves are not born into muddy and pugged pasture, yet on the other hand responded way too late – and too little – to the strong case to make use of underutilised MIQ facilities for migrant workers.

What’s more, I believe the remuneration and financial commitment criteria set around the 200 staff that are allowed in is just another instance of setting farmers up to fail. Why do I say this? Most of the businesses that desperately require the staff are sharemilkers and contract milkers and they cannot afford the extra cost associated with the exemptions.

For the border-exempt rolls, farmers must commit to paying dairy herd managers at least $79,500 a year, assistant managers or 2ICs above $92,000 and dairy farm assistants at or above $27 an hour. Not only are these wage levels significantly above industry averages, publicity about it has greatly unsettled existing local dairy workers.   Staff – and fair enough, they have families to look after just like farm owners and contract milkers – are chasing higher remuneration and employers – some of them desperate about workforce gaps – feel they’ve been forced into headhunting from other farms’ teams, or entering into an auction for limited workers available as they play employers off against each other and sometimes break commitments or undertakings over offered contracts as they find a better offer.

I thank Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor for his work on agricultural sector workforce issues but implore him to keep it going. There’s a long way to go before the primary industries, which are recognised as underpinning the nation’s economic recovery from covid-19, are out of the woods.

With a lot of migrant staff leaving for better opportunities being offered in Australia or Canada, our immigration policies need major change to keep the current staff already here. To me, this is really simple: we have the means and the space in MIQ to allow the families of migrant workers already here to join them in New Zealand. There are valued staff who have not seen their partners and children for more than two years and they are getting extremely frustrated. If they try to go home to see them, the possibility of not being able to return is extremely high so they look for other options, which is what Australia is offering with their new farm worker visas. 

It seems to be the Government’s intention is to force employers to take on Kiwi staff instead of migrant workers; that’s very clear when they set the minimum wage requirements so high it becomes uneconomical to employ migrant staff. The approach might be okay if there were sufficient New Zealanders willing – and with the skills (or at least the right attitude to learn the skills) – to do the work needed. In many rural districts, with relatively low unemployment, they simply aren’t there.

From where I’m sitting, and from discussions with plenty of farmer colleagues, the Government seems disconnected from reality and hellbent on an ideological agenda.

I’ve said it before, when the brown stuff hits the fan in the coming months, blame from our sector is going to swing on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi and the rest of the Cabinet. The case put to them for more migrant dairy staff in particular – but also vets and agricultural contractors – was compelling. Yet their response was underwhelming, to say the least.

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that on some farms, the Government’s failure to respond could be catastrophic for human and animal welfare.

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