SHEEP shearers are being offered more than double the award rate for shearing by producers urgently seeking workers to avoid flystrike and grass infestation issues.
The demand for shearers has been heightened by the lack of New Zealand-based workers in Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which had delayed shearing in many areas.
The re-opening of borders has also put pressure on availability of workers, as shearers gravitate out of Merino areas to southern states for more lucrative shearing of crossbred lambs closer to their homes.
Aushear contractor Brendan Sullivan said shearers are being offered up to $6-$7 a sheep in cash, with “tucker thrown in”, which is up to more than double the award rate of around $3.25, while the contractor’s rate to producers, including payment of shed hands, classer, and cook, WorkCover, insurance and GST is close to $9 per sheep.
“This has put a hell of a lot of pressure on us contractors.
“I’ve lost half a dozen blokes in the last three weeks and I know a bloke who has lost 10 blokes in the last month,” he said.
“You can’t blame them for doing it because they are getting $6 a head, paid cash and their tucker thrown in, and accommodation supplied.
“We can’t compete anywhere near that and it’s putting a whole lot of pressure on a lot of contractors.”
The Mornington Peninsula-based contractor has shearers working across New South Wales (80 percent) and Victoria.
He said sheep producers are advertising for shearers at the increased rates on social media.
“It’s not because of a shortage of shearers, what’s happening is that everyone wants to shear at the same time, basically September through until December.
“It’s always been a busy period, but this year in particular, with rainfall, a lot of grass, flies…sheep that would have been shorn in January, they want them shorn now,” Mr Sullivan said.
“It’s taken blokes away from us at a rapid rate.”
Mr Sullivan is concerned the situation could escalate, with more shearers expecting the higher rates or turning down work at the standard rate in the future.
“That to us is a major concern.
“It would put a huge amount of pressure on the award, though the award rate is there as a minimum, but you’ve also got to be realistic about it, it’s a base rate for every worker to be negotiated each year,” he said.
“If you want to shear your sheep between September and December, you will have to pay a premium because of the precedent that has been set.”
The problem is work continuity not lack of New Zealand workers
Mr Sullivan isn’t expecting the situation to resolve itself with time because he expected fewer New Zealand shearers to come back to Australia after receiving a 30pc increase in their shearing rate, “which brings them to not far off the same rates as Australia.”
“Why would they want to come here?
“We have very good connections in New Zealand and they have said ‘it would not pay us to come there this year’.”
He said the preference of most Australian sheep producers to shear at the same time of the year did not help with the continuity of work.
“So come March, there are a hell of a lot of blokes looking for work and to me that is a major concern.
“It’s the continuity of work for the existing shearers that is the main concern for me.”
This might mean shearers and shed workers will go out of the industry, he said.
“They already are.”
Mr Sullivan said the current shearer trainer system had to change, but award issues also had to be discussed.
“We don’t have full-time instructors and that’s a major concern.”
Mr Sullivan said the farmers, contractors and the unions need to meet to discuss the issue. The average age of shearers was also increasing, but if there was a continuity of work, retaining workers would not be a problem, he said.
“Probably in the next six months, they need to sit down and draw up a plan for this.”
Australia’s low flock numbers was an issue, but wool growers “can no longer cry about a shortage of shearers when they create it,” he said.
Mr Sullivan many shed hands receiving Job Keeper payments would also not go to work unless they are paid cash.
“That’s what is happening.”
Wool growers getting shearing dates pushed back
New South Wales wool producer and broker Don Macdonald said he was trying to get sheep shorn and has been talking to growers who have continually had their shearing dates pushed back.
“We are on the brink of having a fly problem and the importance of the work that is being done and needs to be done around not just shearer-shed hand training, but retention of these people, is really hitting the mark at the moment.
“Every contractor you talk to is having trouble getting shearers.”
One South Australian contractor told him that since the border opened between South Australia and Victoria, Victorian shearers have gone home and the New Zealand shearers that would normally be available are not there.
“Who wants to be out at Brewarrina in 44 degrees shearing Merino ewes when they can be in western Victoria shearing crossbred lambs?
“With a record low flock, we’ve got problems getting them shown.”
He said the requirement for New Zealand shearers and shed hands needing to pay for two weeks’ accommodation on returning home “knocks the shine” off coming to Australia for work.
Shearer/shed hand attraction and retention strategy needed
Shearing Contractors Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford said the availability of shearers was basic econo0mics.
“There is a finite resource and we are all competing for that resource.”
Mr Letchford said the reports of social media advertisements for shearers at rates of $5 cash and higher per sheep were for “micro-jobs”.
“Everyone is effectively going into an auction system where labour is going to the highest bidder.”
He said shearers are being forced to weigh up their loyalty to contractors offering months of consistent work versus accepting the work of the highest bidder.
“At the end of the day, the point that we all, as growers and shearing contractors, need to think about, is it’s about the annual income of our industry’s workers, not our day or piece rate.
“We need to have that consistency of work if we are going to compete with other industries,” he said.
Mr Letchford said there needs to be a long-term strategy to address the industry’s labour issues.
“We need an attraction and retention strategy.
“One of the questions that has certainly been raised is do we lift the regulated price, meaning the award (shearing rate)?
“Because obviously the free market as we are seeing, they are paying $5 for micro-jobs at the moment, the free market is doing exactly that,” he said.
He said the median shearing and shed wages need to be compared with competing industries.
“There are now more sheep per shearer than there was in 2006, but it has not changed massively.”
He the COVID-19 pandemic has made the industry ask a lot of questions.
“Up until this year we didn’t know what basically the south Pacific labour pool looked like.
“But now we have a really clear idea, we know that roughly at least 500 workers transition from Spring time in Australia and then go back to New Zealand,” he said.
Up until 2020 this worked very efficiently, but then was complicated by COVID-19 and border restrictions, Mr Letchford said.
“Next year we will be liquid in terms of the shearer market, so having a mass panic attack at the moment is probably not appropriate.
“There need to be a level-headed long-term view of how we are going to approach this and it needs to be grower-led,” he said.
“If we are not careful and we don’t come up with a better solution than we currently have, the growers may become price takers.
“We need to make fact-based data-based decisions, not anecdotal and not (based on) knee jerk reactions.”