Housing and workers needed for Frew lamb expansion

Terry Sim, June 3, 2022

At the Stawell plant were, from left, TFI chief financial officer Nick Thomas, Minister for Regional Development Mary-Anne Thomas and Frew Foods International managing director Robert Frew.

OVERSEAS worker migration levels need to increase and possibly double to meet current and future demand in the meat processing sector, according to Victorian operator Robert Frew at Stawell.

Mr Frew is the managing director of Frew Foods International, operating an abattoir at Stawell that is part-owned by South Australian-based meat processor Thomas Foods International, which bought a 50 percent stake in 2020.

Victoria’s Minister for Regional Development Mary-Anne Thomas visited the plant last week to announce an undisclosed Regional Jobs Fund investment in the plant’s multi-million dollar expansion, expected to create an extra 250 jobs.

The expansion will almost double Frew Foods’ current sheep and lamb production of about 5000/day or about 1.2million/year, with works already underway to upgrade equipment to process more stock at a lower cost. The company intends to install a cold storage room at the site to drive down storage costs and a traceability system to track livestock during any potential disease outbreaks.

However, after the Minister’s visit, Mr Frew said the company was facing issues finding enough accommodation for existing workers despite a current workforce shortfall of about 80 workers, before even considering the extra 250 workers needed over the next three years.

It is estimated that about eight percent of the national meat processing sector’s workforce is made up of overseas visa workers and backpackers, but the sector is thousands of workers short of the number needed to meet current plant capacity or allow production expansion.

Mr Frew expected to fill his current workforce shortfall by October with overseas workers already organised. The company currently employs about 500 workers and is the largest employer in Stawell.

“We’ve been approved to bring our own workers in.

“We know where to bring them from and we know which people to bring – we need people who have worked in and understand the meat industry.”

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Government support needed on immigration

But Mr Frew attributed the sector’s ongoing worker shortfall to a lack of visa workers due to the COVID pandemic. The company’s ability to fill the expected 250 positions enabled by the expansion would depend on Federal Government policy, with many Australians not attracted to the industry, he said.

“I think if the Labor Government decided to tighten up immigration the country is buggered basically, it’s as simple as that; we need to bring a lot of people in.

“We need more skilled people,” he said.

“We need to increase the immigration.

“The whole country has been run on migration for the last 100 years, so nothing has changed, although you do have to target the right people who want to work in our industry,” Mr Frew said.

“The government shouldn’t put up nay obstacles when there are so many jobs that need to be filled in Australia.

“So any hurdle they put up they are only hurting industry and industry is where they get their money from,” he said.

“I don’t know exactly what the numbers if that they are bringing in in the next 12 months, but I would be doubling it myself, everyone you talk to is short-staffed and roughly by about 20pc.

“Everyone is short, it doesn’t matter what (industry) it is.”

Mr Frew said as Australia’s sheep flock expands if there were insufficient workers to process stock there would be a price impact to farmers.

“This would drive the price down, which is not good for farming.

“We are constantly knocking back overseas orders, because we can’t fill the ones we’ve got.”

The Frew plant has been supplying Aldi and Woolworths with lamb, but the planned expansion would help the company grow its lamb exports across Europe, Canada and North America via the TFI relationship.

“All the expansion is around export.”

Mr Frew attributed the region’s housing shortfall to the movement of people from metropolitan areas, although this had not generated extra workers for the business.

“No, they are retirees.

“It probably started before the pandemic with people moving out of Melbourne because it was so expensive and with interest rates being so low and people realising that they were going to run out of money,” he said.

“So a lot of people bailed out of Melbourne with the money to buy a cheaper house in Stawell.”

During her visit, Ms Thomas said the State Government was investing $25 million in 24 housing projects across Victoria, helping to provide housing for more than 400 people in the area, including 120 housing lots in Stawell and 160 in Ararat.

Ms Thomas said the government was proud to back Frew Foods International to deliver hundreds of new jobs, helping to strengthen the region with more employment opportunities.

“This project will go a long way in supporting the region, creating new jobs and boosting the local economy.”

Member for Western Victoria Jaala Pulford said by supporting Stawell’s biggest employer, the government is opening the door for more people to get jobs in regional Victoria.

“This project will continue to put Northern Grampians on the map for its high-quality meat processing industry.”

The State Government’s Regional Jobs Fund is part of its flagship Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund. The Labor Government said it has invested more than $700 million in its Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund since 2015 – supporting around 13,000 jobs and delivering 1000 projects.

The Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund is part of the Government’s more than $36 billion investment in rural and regional Victoria since 2015.


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