Incentives and staff poaching are becoming rife in the agricultural sector as farmers are desperate go get workers on the land for the peak lambing and calving seasons.
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KAVINDA HERATH/STUFF Southland Federated Farmers sharemilker chairman Jason Herrick said immigrant workers leaving for Australia or Canada was causing farmers to poach workers from one another which was creating more hardship. [File photo]

The Australian government is offering up to $2000 relocation assistance to Kiwi’s and those with valid work visas to move across the ditch and work on farms in regional areas. In Victoria, this payment rises with a $2430 bonus for eight weeks of work.

Southland Federated Farmers sharemilker chairman Jason Herrick said these incentives coupled with quicker pathways to family reunification were causing immigrant farmworkers to depart for either Australia or Canada.

“You can’t blame Australia for grabbing the opportunity as soon as the travel bubble opened, our workers can leave work and start [over there] three or four days later.”

He had heard of two Southland immigrant dairy workers in the past week leaving for Canada or Australia, and said the number was rising by the week.

“I’m hearing them all the time. New ones, all the time.”

Waikaka contract milker Leonie Falconer​ said she and her husband had been advertising a general farm assistant job since April and had only just been able to secure a worker.

She also recruited her sister, who usually works as a vet technician, to have adequate staffing through the peak busy calving season.

There had been multiple times since April where they had begun setting up for new workers, only to have them not show up, refuse drug tests or not have adequate licences for farm work, she said.

The shortage meant her husband and their one existing worker were having to work longer hours without breaks, only getting the bare necessities completed as they simply did not have time for a lot of regular maintenance.

It was impossible to put a number on how many additional hours they were currently working, she said.

“I know with my husband his days off are not days off, he still has to go out and work.”

An additional issue for them was the poaching of workers between farms forcing wages higher, she said.

“Staff are asking for more and more money, and that’s a huge thing, especially for someone like a contract milker or share milker to have to carry, and that’s impacted us this year.”

Herrick said this staff poaching was occurring across the agricultural sector.

“Everybody is poaching one another’s staff. It’s becoming very vile out there.”

The latest Federated Farm Confidence Survey, released on Monday, showed that nearly half of the 1422 farmers surveyed in July had found it hard to recruit skilled and motivational staff, a 13-point increase on the 35 per cent of farmers who cited workforce shortages in January.

A survey conducted by Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers earlier in the year had shown 49 per cent of dairy farmer respondents were currently short-staffed, of that close to 25 per cent had not been able to fill vacancies for more than six months.

DairyNZ general manager of responsible dairy Jenny Cameron said she was aware of Southland farm owners who had moved back to dairy sheds and calving rosters, teenagers coming home to fill in roles, and part-time rosters and alternative milking schedules being created around school hours in the hopes of finding people to fill rolls.

She was concerned about the stress of labour shortages on farmers piling up with new environmental regulations.

A ‘View from the cow shed’ survey conducted by DairyNZ had shown that mental stress amongst farmers was very high and had increased since this time last year.

Cameron thought not enough was being done to address immediate shortages and that the 200 class exemptions granted by the government would miss the peak calving season.

“It’s all great that they [the government] gave the class exception, but if you can’t get MIQ spots until six months away then it doesn’t help with the immediate issues.”

Herrick did not believe New Zealand could offer the same incentives Australia was advertising given this wait on MIQ spots was preventing workers from even entering the country.

He thought the government needed to be working harder to listen to farming representatives around immigration.

“I think if we can bring the likes of the Lion King cast and the Wiggles and all of those people in, and I’m talking hundreds if not thousands of sports people as well, then why can we not be getting these borders open for workers?”

Herrick said that because Kiwi’s didn’t want to work so far south, Southland was experiencing the brunt of the loss of immigrant workers.

He predicted 2000 of the estimated 4000 farming workers needed nationwide were in Southland alone, but the reality could be a lot worse than the figures suggest.

“We’re gauging our numbers on what’s being advertised, but then when you talk to people who have been advertising three to six months, they’ve just given up on advertising any more. They’ve just given up. So the true nature isn’t known.”

Dairy products and, in particular, grass-fed products are performing strongly post-covid in overseas markets.

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