Thursday, December 7, 2023

THE VOICE: Diego, a vital farming cog trapped overseas

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Since the start of the covid-19 lockdown I have run a farmer Zoom meeting on Thursday nights attended by about 40 rural people from Kerikeri to Invercargill. 
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We discuss all things current from drought to Mycoplasma bovis, analyse markets, support farmers in their issues and discuss Government policies. 

My guests have included Agriculture Ministeer Damien O’Connor, David Bennett and Andrew Falloon from Parliament’s benches, Nuffield scholars, Federated Farmers board members and president Katie Milne, rural media publishers and, most importantly, bloody good farmers who care about the industry they work and do business in.  

One of the topics that repeatedly comes up is the issue of immigrant workers and the trouble the dairy industry is going to find itself in come calving. Immigrant workers have been an integral part of the primary sector for many years, valued by many an employer, striving to become good workers and join their local community. 

The dairy industry, especially, could not have grown like it has without these immigrant workers to fill the gaps. They were wanted, needed and became valued as essential team members.

So let me tell you about Diego. 

He has lived in New Zealand for 11 years, been involved in dairy farming for 10 years and is now assistant manager on a substantial dairy farm at Ashburton. He has family here, joined the local church and contributes to the local school and community, pays taxes and has applied for residence. 

He was told his residence was to be approved in April so he decided to take his wife and children home to Columbia for a short break before the pressure of winter feeding and calving to catch up with family he hadn’t seen in six years. While he was away the borders to non-residents closed and his application was put on hold. Now he has no work visa and can’t be paid any support by his employer, his house full of furniture is locked up and he finds himself stranded in Columbia.

His employer has offered to pay his family’s quarantine expenses and has been working tirelessly through the local MP and government departments – so far three as the case progresses with no concrete resolution at the time of writing. 

When we made a Farmers’ Voice video on this topic the stress was evident in the employer’s voice as he told us he is now expected to make a decision on Diego’s future. The suggestion he needs to let Diego go and make other arrangements does not sit well morally because he is a valued part of the team.

To replace Diego with a Kiwi of his calibre this close to winter and six weeks from calving is pretty nigh impossible. The employer has advertised a short-term roll to fill in the gaps and most of the people who have applied have little or no experience and if they have experience are not Kiwis. 

Let’s put this into perspective for the employer. He is one man down on a property where he is full hands-on. He milks and is part of the roster so is not really a floating spare who can cover the gap left by the loss of his right-hand man leading up to the  busiest time of the year. 

I can already see the toll this is taking on his family as the hours they need to work increases. The rhetoric the children use about being dairy farmers has changed as their lives change to accommodate the increased workload mum and dad face. While no farmer wants animal welfare issues to arise the potential for farmers in this situation to miss things increases. Farm wellbeing will suffer.

We also have the situation that all immigrant work visas will be reassessed in September with no guarantee they will be extended. That is right in the heart of calving here in Ashburton and a real bottleneck situation for the dairy industry. None of this bodes well for a continuation of good farming practices as farmers will then be expected to take on Kiwi workers retraining from job losses caused by covid-19 who are inexperienced in the primary industries.

It’s been stated farming will be once again be the backbone of the economy but the backbone of the industry, its immigrant workforce, is now seemingly undesirable and to be replaced by novice Kiwis.  

The irony is that all through the lockdown farming continued, contributed and delivered under huge environmental pressures including drought and killing space restrictions. Yet the first immigrants let into the country are here to make an animated movie led by a man who has belittled farming practices in NZ. 

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