Sunday, March 3, 2024

Relief as machinery operators granted border exemption

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Rural contractors have breathed a sigh of relief after the Government granted 200 skilled machinery operators exemption to enter the country.
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Rural Contractors NZ hopes these much-needed workers can enter New Zealand and be ready to work by late February.

Rural contractors have breathed a sigh of relief after the Government granted 200 skilled machinery operators exemption to enter the country.

How quickly these workers can enter New Zealand and go through the MIQ process will be critical, Rural Contractors NZ chief executive Andrew Olsen says.

He will be working on this with officials over the next two weeks.

“I will continue to stress the urgency of getting the workers in as soon as possible in the new year and from plane to paddock with as few obstacles as possible,” Olsen said.

Realistically, he hopes the workers could be in NZ by around February 13. They would then undergo self-isolation for seven days and then be ready to work.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced the border exemption on December 12. The exemption also includes 40 shearers and 50 woolhandlers entry into the country.

The existing border class exemption for dairy workers was also changed to remove the previous split of 150 assistant dairy farm managers and 50 dairy farm assistants.

“There’s huge demand for dairy farm assistants, so we’re providing more flexibility for our dairy sector to fill jobs up to the maximum of 200 where they see the strongest need,” O’Connor said.

Olsen says he had no doubt that Federated Farmers’ concerns about the impact of the shortage of skilled machinery operators helped secure the 200 extra operators.

“We both know that without more operators we were heading for a disaster in terms of lives, damaged machinery and lost production. Being able to present a united front means the entire rural sector and New Zealand Inc is now poised to benefit,” Olsen said.

“The 200 extra operators we now have approved should take the sting out of what we need and we are grateful to the ministers for that. The key will be getting these workers in rapidly. If we are still idling in low gear in six weeks, the opportunity will have been lost.”

In November, contractors met in Waikato to renew the push for more workers to be allowed into NZ because of concerns that widespread staff shortages would lead to injury or death as contractors struggled to keep up with demand for mowing and planting over spring.

Olsen says he has suggested to the Government that these workers could isolate on-farm because many contractors and farmers live rurally and often accommodate their workers.

“This would allow the new operators to be able to perform their work in a non-contact manner, much as we saw during Level 4 lockdown for essential service workers,” he said.

 “There is still pressure on MIQ facilities and this way we could avoid some of the MIQ lolly scramble, minimise costs and get our desperately needed imported staff to work sooner.”

Also relieved is the dairy industry. DairyNZ strategy and investment leader of farm performance Nick Robinson says the Government’s decision to remove the split between farm assistant and manager was sensible.

“There has been much stronger demand from dairy farmers for farm assistant positions, and all of these applications were filled quickly. We know there are more farmers who have vacant farm assistant positions that they can’t find Kiwis to fill. We are waiting to see further detail of the Government’s announcement and will share that with farmers once it’s available,” Robinson said.

He says while the decision is good news, it was critical that the Government support the dairy sector’s request to allow a further 1500 international dairy workers into NZ next year.

“With our borders closed, many of New Zealand’s core sectors are facing staff shortages and we are seeing a significant labour shortage on farms too,” he said.

Recent labour surveys indicate that the dairy sector is short of 2000-4000 workers and farmers continue to raise the issue as a significant cause of stress.

“Farmers are under real pressure and have been since covid-19 arrived on our shores. This is simply unsustainable,” he said.

“This has been a serious issue for two seasons now. It has taken a real toll on farmers and we cannot let this continue for another season.”

The announcement follows many meetings and many months of advocacy by industry groups to try and get an improved class exception process and staff on farm.

Federated Farmers employment spokesman Chris Lewis says the exception is just the first part of this process.

“Employers and their workers will need to work closely with their respective industry groups to sort MIQ, flights and all the associated paperwork. This is not an easy or cheap task for either party, but with unemployment at such low levels this is really the only option for much of the primary industries at the moment.”

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