Saturday, March 2, 2024

Sector forced to get by with fewer workers

Neal Wallace
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Dairy farmers are giving up trying to recruit new workers, says a Southland farmer.

Jason Herrick, who farms near Mossburn, said the 4000 workers the industry needs will be fewer now, as he is hearing farmers are making management changes to reduce their labour needs because they cannot attract New Zealanders or secure migrant staff.

Relief milkers are now charging $45/hr and the worker shortage is leading to poaching and higher wages, which will be inflated further by new conditions attached to recruitment of migrant workers

Herrick said employers must currently pay immigrants a minimum of between $27 and $28/hr.

Under new conditions that will now increase to about $40/hr, which will push up other wages as existing employees seek wage relativity.

“It is hard to find career shearers and wool handlers, people who want to make a choice  as a career or a job.”

Jamie McConachie
Shearing contractor

Herrick employs four Filipinos and says for many farmers’ immigrant workers are the only short-term solution.

The fact many migrants are being recognised by Dairy Industry Award titles shows they want to learn and are ambitious to advance their dairy careers.

He said changing the perception of dairy farming to make it an appealing career for New Zealanders is an intergenerational challenge that is hampered by attacks from environmental and animal welfare groups and incorrect public perceptions.

Most farmers are reluctant to defend their sector in fear of being further attacked and labelled.

“Most farmers put their head in the sand and hope it goes away because they don’t want to be shot down,” Herrick said.

Ironically, an exceptionally dry summer helped Southland shearing contractor Jamie McConachie navigate this shearing season with fewer staff than he usually needed.

A shortage of shearers and wool handlers is a major challenge, but the exodus of stock from a rain-short province reduced demand for his services.

“It is hard to find career shearers and wool handlers, people who want to make a choice  as a career or a job,” McConachie said.

At the peak of the season McConachie needs 80 workers, but changes to the shearing patterns are impacting the inter-island flow of workers, while closed borders have prevented the trans-Tasman movement of workers.

The North Island main shear is starting later and ending later, which is crossing over with South Island shearing.

Similarly, pre-lamb shearing is getting busier in the south from June to August.

The pool of rural people who normally work in the shearing industry is shrinking and competition for those that remain is heightened.

“It’s getting harder and harder. The rural fabric has changed,” he said.

With workers increasingly living in larger centres, they now have to travel further to sheds.

He said with fewer workers, issues such as the quality of shearing facilities and working conditions are becoming employment factors.

Farmers with substandard sheds could find it harder to attract shearing contractors.

He does not believe the physical nature of the job is a deterrent, saying that, along with the potential earnings, it is part of the attraction.