AUSTRALIAN Workers’ Union national secretary Daniel Walton has received a last-minute invitation to a meeting of senior wool industry and government officials today to discuss the Pacific Australian Labour Mobility Scheme.
The meeting was called to prepare the groundwork for an industry-wide roundtable next month; however, up until late yesterday afternoon, the AWU had not been notified about either event or invited.
On Wednesday this week, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said there are critical labour force shortages in the wool industry, particularly related to sheep shearing.
“The Australian Government is interested in exploring with industry how the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme may assist.
“Preparations have commenced for an industry roundtable meeting in April,” the spokesperson said.
“Initial discussions with important industry stakeholders including Australian Wool Innovation, Department of Agriculture Water and Environment, Shearing Contractors Association of Australia, Michel Wool Processing (Australia’s only wool processor) will take place on 18 March.”
Yesterday morning, Mr Walton confirmed that the AWU had not yet been notified of, or invited to, today’s event, and at a meeting of a PALM consultative committee meeting he attended yesterday, no mention was made of the wool industry events.
After receiving an invitation to attend late yesterday, Mr Walton said programs like PALM would only be successful with engagement from all industry stakeholders.
“Undoubtedly a worker voice will strengthen the program.
“But invites two minutes to midnight is not the best way to go about it.”
Mr Walton said the AWU also sits on the PALM welfare and agriculture committees, and is also on the shearing industry safety committee that he said had not met for two years.
Mr Walton has been critical of the proposed ag visa and the AWU has acted against the Federal Government’s efforts to encourage other countries to participate in sending workers into Australia. This prompted Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud last month to accuse the AWU of sabotaging and delaying the ag visa’s implementation by visiting embassies and telling ambassadors “that they should not let their citizens come to Australia, because they will be exploited by Australian farmers.”
At the recent ABARES Outlook conference, University of Adelaide Associate Professor in Law Dr Joanna Howe said migration had become “a political football” and delays in Australia’s shearing industry accessing Pacific island workers to alleviate a workforce shortage pointed to a lack of national tripartite leadership.
Mr Walton said there would be nothing but “upside” from union involvement in the PALM scheme’s application in the wool industry.
“Because the reality is these programs are about the mobility of people and we are a union of people.
“We look after workers and being able to share their experiences first-hand to identify what is working and what is not will lead to proper safeguards being put in place and to stop what we have seen play out in nearly every single badly designed visa program — that is widespread exploitation.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic shearer and shed hand numbers have been limited by the loss of New Zealand workers and locally by border closures, delaying shearing and prompting a rise in pay rates by at least 15 percent, and agreed to by Shearing Contractors Association of Australia members. But Mr Walton believed the wool industry still needed to do a genuine check on worker numbers to identify if there was an actual shortage to justify additional labour from overseas.
“Obviously during the pandemic there was a whole lot of hysteria that without New Zealand shearers being able to come over that sheep were not going to be shorn, but that turned out to be completely false, it did get done.”
Mr Walton also believed one of the bigger drivers to bringing in more wool industry workers in was the lift on shearing and shed hand rates during the pandemic.
“We know that surplus labour drives down wage increases, so I’m not surprised the industry is making that move.”
But he said assuming there is a genuine worker shortage, the next stage would be a proper program with structure and rigour.
“The Pacific scheme (PALM) has that; it is better than what they were proposing with the age visa, which is just written on the back of a napkin.
“The bit which does make more sense is where you have something like the Pacific scheme where you have the ability for the unions to get involved in the induction, to help explain workers rights and make sure they get access to pastoral care and other community groups so they are supported throughout their journey,” he said.
“It would make it more sustainable.”
Mr Walton said the AWU has been a party to negotiations on the Pastoral Award, which will apply to Pacific workers in the shearing industry.
“The big difference is the rate that is set in the Pastoral Award is not the going rate in a shearing shed.
“A higher rate that is being paid and obviously most pastoralists, land owners and farmers would know that they are not going to get any shearers in unless they pay the going rate.”