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Overseas backup long overdue and not enough, farmers say

New Zealand’s dairy, meat and forestry industries have been crying out for more workers throughout the pandemic, and the government has finally moved toward meeting their demands.

Border-class exemptions to immigration rules were announced this week to bring in 1580 additional workers to fill skill gaps and give the industries the workforce they needed.

The exceptions would address worker shortages in the lead-up to launching the accredited employer work visa [AEWV] on July 4, 2022.

They would take effect from April 12, allowing experienced workers in meat processing, the dairy industry or forestry to travel to New Zealand for jobs. Still, local farmer Mike Butterick said that although it was a positive change, it was “a little too late”.

Butterick said the changes were discussed among farmers more than a year ago and that opening up the borders to more workers was long overdue.
“People are desperate,” he said.

“The harsh reality is we just cannot find the people domestically.”

The rules stipulated the new workers would need to be paid at least the median wage plus $1 per hour [which would currently equate to $28 per hour].

The new settings meant 800 dairy workers, including assistant dairy farm managers, 2ICs, dairy herd managers, and dairy farm assistants could support the dairy industry.

However, this amount fell short of the sector’s 4000 worker shortage.

Federated Farmers president David Hayes.

As for the other sectors, forestry would be able to access 300 silviculture workers and 280 wood processors, and the meat processing industry would gain 650 workers.

Butterick said this was “nowhere near enough” and did not come close to meeting the needs of each sector.

He went on to say that this only applied to those that fit into the specific categories and while the meat processing sector had struggled to process all of the meat and needed serious help, other businesses that fell outside the categories would heavily benefit from additional overseas staff.

Before the pandemic, “the skilled international workers used to bring expertise with them, and that is what’s been missing,” he said.

Wairarapa Federated Farmers president David Hayes said the organisation was pleased to see the initiative which would provide some relief for local farmers.

“Like most areas of New Zealand, Wairarapa does have severe shortages of skills,” he said.

“While there are good local networks that employ local people it can be difficult to obtain experienced machinery and tractor drivers for pasture improvement, arable farming and viticulture.

“Shearers are also needed for the hill country farms, and there are many other examples.”

“Immigration New Zealand is assuring us this will be a simple process.

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“It also makes sense to put the employers first in the process and work out if the job is one for which you can hire a migrant as a first step.”

But it was not guaranteed that all farmers and foresters would take up the offer of international staff as the costs of fuel and fertiliser put pressure on their budgets.

Butterick also expressed concerns about what the wage requirement would mean for employers.

“I’m wondering what ramifications of the median wage requirement may have in terms of the New Zealanders sitting there on $25 per hour –how much stress is that going to put on matching wages or increasing wages?”

“Ultimately, it will fuel the inflation fire and add to the cost of products that we purchase.”

Butterick said that on the farm, inflation was significantly higher than the recorded 5.9 per cent rise last quarter.

“Our fuel bill effectively tripled since October 2020 and unfortunately the reduction in road-user charges had no benefit to all of the contractors.”

Butterick said that overall, more overseas workers would benefit the region but it was also “just another cost we have to suck up”.

Hayes agreed that the initiative would be helpful, but it would not completely solve the problem of local skills development and shortages.

“There are other initiatives to attract and retain skilled people in the primary sector,” he said.

“Wairarapa Federated Farmers strongly supports these initiatives that encourage careers and skills development in farming. One of these is the recently announced Pathways into Primary Industries that is piloting ways to connect people with business owners.”

A local longer-term answer to the shortages and gaps was the ‘Youth2Work Wairarapa’ initiative, funded by the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs and Carterton District Council.

“Our role is to get people work-ready and our focus is the rangatahi/candidates and getting them into sustainable employment,” Youth2Work youth manager Jenny Gasson said.

“In September 2021 we received some funding from the Ministry of Primary Industries to help us put more time and focus into the primary industry across Wairarapa and we run this under our Youth2Work umbrella.”

“We’ve placed 15 people into primary sector roles in Wairarapa since September 2021.”

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