Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Fate of halal butchers uncertain

Neal Wallace
As skilled workers, trained Fijian butchers not covered by recent wage amnesty.
Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said New Zealand needs about 250 halal butchers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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An immigration sector agreement between the government and the meat industry allows companies to employ 320 low-skilled migrant workers at less than the median wage – but that does not cover desperately needed halal butchers, who would have to be paid at a higher rate.

The industry needs about 100 halal butchers – and recently trained about 50 Fijian butchers and had them vetted by Muslim religious authorities.

Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said the industry is seeking clarification on how they can access the Fijian halal butchers, along with another 20 Indonesians trained before New Zealand closed its border during the latest covid-19 outbreak.

“There is no special provision for these workers, even though they have a unique skill set and are a cohort of people we need,” Karapeeva said.

Karapeeva said they are seeking clarification about which visa to use and companies are concerned about the length of time it takes Immigration NZ to process applications.

The meat industry – which estimates it is short 2000 workers – is one of six sectors the government last week granted special visa status for low-skilled migrant workers, allowing them to pay $24/hr, 86% of the median wage. The government-approved sector agreement visas apply only to entry-level migrant workers, and last for only seven months.

She said the agreement is a welcome boost to its own domestic recruitment efforts and will allow meat companies to restore some lost productivity. The industry has estimated it had to forgo $100m in lost product and added value last season due in part to staff shortages. 

“For example, the shortage of skilled knife people means that a reduced number of cuts can be prepared for the high-value chilled market, and the product is exported as frozen at a lower value.

“Byproducts are also sent to rendering instead of further processing.”

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Michael Wood said additional migrant staff can be employed but will have to be paid at higher rates.

These sector agreements will be replaced from 2024 with a programme in which workers from the Pacific Islands will be able to come and work.

Road Transport Association chief executive Nick Leggett said migrants supplement the truck driver work force and are not a solution to shortages. He estimated the sector is short about 2500 drivers but said staffing levels appear to have stabilised, going by anecdotal evidence.

A survey of 400 transport operators revealed that the median hourly rate has increased from $26/hr in 2020 to $31/hr in 2021, which has encouraged some workers to stay.

“If we want more qualified and skilled class five drivers, we have to do better at growing what we have got,” Leggett said.

He said a heavily subsidised industry trainee programme, Road to Success, run alongside companies, is the best way to solve the driver shortage, “along with improving wages and conditions”.

The government immigration policy also temporarily doubles to 24,000 the number of migrants allowed into NZ under the Working Holiday Scheme, and extends visas to retain labour already in country.

Wood said immigration settings were changed following deputations from sectors seeking more time to transition to the new rules. 

Sector agreements include an expectation for improvement, including the implementation of workforce transition plans and industry transformation plans.

Performance against those criteria will be monitored and fed into reviews and decisions about future access to migrants who will be paid less than the median wage.

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