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Labour crisis looms as Pacific meat workers head home

Jon Condon, June 10, 2022

One large multi-site processor told Beef Central last week that it stood to lose around 90 Samoan or Solomon Islanders from its books in coming months.

That would happen in stages as their four-year terms under the Pacific Labour Scheme expired, starting this month through to August, having arrived in 2018.

Part of the reason was a change in government in the Solomon Islands, and a desire to repatriate young citizens back to the country of 240,000 to boost the local economy, Beef Central was told.

Currently there are about 12,000 young Samoans aged 18-40 in Australia and another 24,000 in New Zealand, which is seen by the new Samoan government as depleting the local economy.

The Samoan Government’s approach has only surfaced in the past fortnight, Beef Central was told.

There appears to be a sensitivity over ‘pushing-back’ against the move at Australian Government level, due to the current climate of tensions over the Pacific region involving China.

One of the channels being explored is a pathway to longer-term Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) visas (where existing Certificate II and III skill-sets can be shown), as a step towards permanent residency through the Meat Industry Labour Agreement (MILA). However, the new Federal Government is apparently wary of upsetting the Pacific Island nations during current geo-political sensitivities.

As of 15 February, 45 Australian meat industry firms had a MILA with the Solomon Islands Department of Home Affairs.

As the situation currently stands, those Pacific Island workers in Australia that have completed their term would have to return home for at least 12 months, before having the option to re-apply for another three or four-year term, Beef Central understands.

A large number of Australian red meat processors have a contingent of Solomon Islanders or Samoans (or both) in their workforce mix. Beef Central was told that as a general rule, the further north or west a processing plant is located, the greater the Islander labour representation.

Several large operators within the red meat processing space and the industry representative body, the Australian Meat Industry Council, have already held briefings with the new Labor Federal Government, Beef Central was told.

Some large export processors are hopeful that the Pacific Island labour scheme will be broadened this year, incorporating new sourcing countries including Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, where the impact of lengthy departures to offshore jobs in Australia would be less acute.

In the lead-up to the Federal election, Labor appeared to be less supportive of reforms to the ag visa program, but was more receptive to an expanded Pacific Labour facility, Beef Central was told.

“One of the frustrating parts is that at the end of their three or four years, the Pacific Islanders are skilled up, and as such are valued employees. And given the choice, many would be keen to stay,” one processor said. “Some (not necessarily large in number) have in fact married Australians during their three-year stay, so there may be some special cases to consider.”

A recent article in the Solomon Island Times said the enforced return home for workers was ‘hardly ideal.’

“Promoting only circular migration does nothing to build up the Pacific diaspora in Australia. An enforced upper limit on how long PLS workers can be in Australia reduces the incentives for workers to acquire skills and to take on additional responsibilities while in Australia,” the article said.

“Once their four-year stint is up, those PLS workers who want to can, if they are able to find a new job or get their old one back, return to Australia after nine months at home. However, this is also not ideal given the uncertainties involved – especially for the many PLS workers who are married and have children since, for as long as they are on the PLS, they will be separated from their family.”

The latest labour challenge comes at a time when the Australian red meat processing industry claims to be 10,000 workers short of its current staffing requirements.

The industry’s labour challenges are being manifested in myriad ways, with some processors opting to abandon certain value-adding practises on more labour-intensive items like offals, and simply turning this under-utilised material into low-value meatmeal.

Several processors said while recent rain had somewhat masked the underlying industry labour shortage since Easter, an anticipated rise in slaughter numbers during the  back half of this year would seriously challenge the current labour force.

Need for a ‘program’ – not just a visa

The Australian Meat Industry Council has been warning about the enormous challenges the red meat processing industry would face regarding labour for the past 12 months – particularly as slaughter activity starts to return to more normal levels after herd rebuilding (link).

The supposed new dawn that the new Labor Government was planning to introduce through the Pacific Labour scheme meant that the Australian agricultural visa program would in future only be filled by workers from approved pacific nations.

“To us, that is a shade short-sighted, if we haven’t actually got the visa structure working properly,” AMIC chief executive Patrick Hutchinson said.

“AMIC has already started its process of getting out to relevant ministers in the new government, saying we want a specific meat industry program – not just the visa itself – that better reflects the needs of the industry,” he said.

AMIC in the past has made the point that unlike activities like fruit picking – which are incredibly seasonal – meatworking is an ongoing, permanent activity.

“We are 10,000 people short, from the stage the cattle are trucked off the farm or feedlot, to when a steak hits a plate, or sits in a box being loaded onto a boat. There are many and varied missing pieces in the supply chain puzzle, from a labour perspective – even down to cold-storage and logistics,” Mr Hutchinson said.

“We need a specific meat (or food) processing industry visa program. Even retail butcher shops are affected. We are currently missing a thousand workers in butcher shops across Australia.”

“The program needs to be much more specific and relevant to what our industry’s needs are. But it needs to be an entire program – not just the visa itself.”

“We’ve already heard of abattoirs that because of the labour shortages, are turning off offal rooms, because they simply don’t have the manpower to perform that task.

“We have a situation, right now, where we are struggling to process six million cattle this year. On forecasts out to 2023-25, processing requirements will grow out again to nine or ten million head. How do we do that with the same workforce we currently have? It can’t happen,” Mr Hutchinson said.

A similar occurrence was happening in the US.

“The US Senate committee heard complaints about too much power in the hands of a few processors, and ranchers were not getting paid adequately for their stock, because there was too many cattle for the available number of meatworkers.”

A suitable program would start with assessment of all of the key areas where workers were lacking, Mr Hutchinson suggested.

“Then we need to look at a number of different components. Currently, the retail butchery sector (which currently needed 1000 workers alone), was on the short-term visa list, only.

“That means that even if we did secure those retail butcher workers overseas, we can only keep them for six months before they return home,” he said.

“Realistically, we need five years.”

“We ultimately need a visa program that addresses all of the key areas where the industry has gaps – including access to unskilled labour in areas like liairage or load-out – not just skilled boners, slicer sand slaughtermen.”

“Further afield, that program needs to address how to get the product to flow effectively – because as we saw during Omicron, it comes back to issues around food security in Australia.”

“Food security, and farmer security – they are the two key outcomes we can achieve in this, if we are able to develop a program that allows us to fill those deficient areas with workers.”

  • Click here to view an earlier item and video celebrating Australian Country Choice’s Pacific Islander meatworker choir.

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Comments

  1. Glenn Nix, June 10, 2022

    At the same time we are already 10,000 workers short, these guys are going home and Albo wants to shut live sheep transport. No wonder the trots win no rural seats, they just don’t care .

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