Navdeep Singh has worked on dairy farms in New Zealand since 2007. Originally from India, he came to New Zealand in 2006 to study tourism at Lincoln University but gave away the course to go dairying.
“I started at the bottom and worked my way up to become a contract milker,” he says.
“I don’t want to go back to India where you can work, but you won’t get anywhere.”
Singh is one of about 2000 migrant workers from as far afield as the Philippines, Brazil and India who bolster New Zealand’s dairy industry, making up 15 per cent of the workforce. The statistics are almost double in provinces like Southland where dairying plays a significant role in the economy.
He says he has no ambition to own a dairy farm and may only stay in the industry for another few years. Although he would like to stay in New Zealand.
“To say I’m going to stay in dairying for life … well life is a long time. I’d like to explore other options.”
Singh is married to Dutch immigrant Ellen van der Velden, who also works in the industry.
Singh’s employer, John Gregan of Waimate says Navdeep could go ” all the way” in the dairy industry.
“I have talked to Navi about this,” he says. “He has a real understanding of feed budgets and how to look after cows. He would have a great career in dairy if he wanted to continue.”
Selwyn dairy farmer Michael Woodward says he employs migrant workers because there is a shortage of skilled Kiwi labour.
“My preference is to employ Kiwis, but at the same time, the jobs on-farm require a certain level of skill. So we choose the right person for the job which happens to be a migrant worker,” Woodward says.
In his team, he has two junior Kiwis and a Kiwi manager, but his intermediate staff are from Brazil and the Netherlands.
“The Netherlands girl put herself through the industry training schemes and is being pro-active in preparing for the next step up.”
That’s something young Kiwis aren’t doing, he says. They’re expecting it to be given to them. So when it comes time to evaluate who to put into the next position, they haven’t done the extra work.
The wages are pretty good these days, $50,000 to $100,000 for a farm manager. That’s for 50 hours on a six days on, two days off roster. And it only takes five years of commitment to get into a management role where you are earning upward of $100,000 a year, Woodward says.
That compares with a shepherd’s wage on a sheep and beef property of $43,000; a head shepherd $51,000 and a farm manager $63,000.
On an arable farm a manager would earn $58,000, and a tractor driver 51,000. Operations manager on a dairy farm could expect to get upward of $90,000. It is easy to see what’s the most attractive option.
A lot of the farm owners are ageing, and they need employees coming through to take their place. If dairying is not promoted as a valid vocation, farms won’t be able to run cows because there will be no one to milk them, Woodward says.
“If I had a choice of who to employ? The easier route is definitely a Kiwi, but if they aren’t the right fit for the team, you are better off putting yourself through the hassle of that extra paperwork and expense and getting someone from overseas.”
Armado Cruz works on a dairy farm in the Selwyn district. He arrived from the Philipines two years ago and has worked his way into a second in charge this after spending six months on a dairy farm in Saudi Arabia.
“I am happy in my job,” he says. “But would rather my family were here as well. I’m hoping this will happen soon.”
He regularly sends money home to his wife but says he worries about her welfare and that of his two children. This can be a distraction, he says.
“To begin with I found the new culture and the weather hard,” he says.
“It helped that there were other Filipinos around and I do spend more time with them than with Kiwis. We are all in the same boat together which is nice.
“On the whole working here is a good experience. My boss is very good, very understanding of my position, and I appreciate that he made an effort to employ me, as I know this was difficult.”
He says the paperwork to get a work visa was extensive, and there was a time he thought of giving the idea of working in New Zealand away but is glad he pushed ahead.
“I feel I have a future in dairying that I wouldn’t have had back in the Philipines. I’m hoping to become a manager in the next few years. And the money is good. I could never earn this money at home.”
Antonio Alvarez has been working on a dairy farm in Southland for almost three years. He initially came on a tourist visa but wanted to stay.
“I volunteered on a farm for a few weeks, then applied for a temporary work visa and have been here ever since,” he says.
Alvarez has experience on dairy farms in Brazil and now works in a in a assistant manger position.
“I enjoy the work, the lifestyle. I enjoy Kiwis. I am learning a skill that I hope will get me a better job when I get home.”
There are plenty of Brazilians working on farms in Southland, he says. Isolation isn’t a problem, and he doesn’t feel homesick.
He would like a contract milking position in the future.
Federated Farmers national president Katie Milne, who dairy farms at Rotomanu on the West Coast, says. there is reasonable pool of Kiwi labour her area and she has not employed migrants.
“The gaps get filled, but not necessarily at the standard we would like. Some floaters wander around doing a bit of work here and there, and they fill a gap,” she says.
“But I would prefer to have someone more invested and wanting to make a future for themselves rather than get the pay cheque and go to the pisser.”
New Zealanders don’t seem to realise there are opportunities in the industry – they don’t hear the good stuff, she says.
“It’s bloody good money. We are getting to the stage of struggling to afford it on a smaller farm. You want a high standard of work delivered for that pay rate.”
She said migrant workers rarely stayed in the district.
“We have found that after two weeks they are asking where Ashburton is as that’s where there are other internationals. So they don’t hang around on the West Coast, they bugger off to a community with their own people and culture.”
Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment visa services manager Michael Carley, says non-New Zealanders can apply for a temporary work visa under the “essential skills” policy if they have had a job offer from a New Zealand employer. They must be skilled in an occupation where there are not enough Kiwis available to do the work.
“Any employer wishing to employ a migrant will need to satisfy immigration officers there are no suitable Kiwis to do the job. This includes proving that you have advertised it before offering it to a migrant.”
There is no limit on the number of migrant dairy workers that can be granted a visa, he says. Each application is assessed on a case by case basis based on the employer’s needs.
Federated Farmers dairy industry group chairman Chris Lewis says the same core issues exist in all rural areas that are not close to a town.
Most rural New Zealanders have jobs, and the unemployment statistics are meagre. And the people that are available are not suitable for outdoor physical work or have a poor work history. The available talent pool is next to zero, he says.
“We do need migrants, but they aren’t the farmers first choice. We would prefer Kiwis because they are here. And there’s no paperwork, no dramas going through the immigration palaver every year, putting an application in, needing to get legal advice to make sure you have written it correctly and paying a lot of money.”
He says he has hired a few migrants, and they are highly skilled. But under the current system, they are deemed as unskilled which is demeaning for someone who got a degree or work experience.
At the end of the day, farming is perceived as being unskilled, he says.
“It doesn’t help that the Government sees it as a low skilled vocation. This doesn’t do much to attract the youngest and brightest into the industry.”
Lewis says he mostly hires Filipinos, who have previous work experience in Japan or Saudi Arabia. Some have degrees in agriculture or engineering.
They come here looking for a better life for their families knowing that in 10 or 15 years they can go back and buy a house or a business. Not all of them want to stay here forever, he says.
“On the whole, I’ve been very happy with them. There have been a few challenges on the way, partly because I have had to learn a new culture and develop new skills to employ them successfully.
“I’ve had a good run, they’ve been smart people, picked up things quickly, turned up on time, and been good at doing things the way they are supposed to be done.”