THE Federal Government is committed to its pledged phaseout of live sheep exports, Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt told AMIC’s Meat Processing and Export Conference at the Gold Coast last week, saying the move will expand opportunities for Australia’s meat processing sector.
The recently-achieved harmonisation of shelf-life standards for beef to 120 days and sheep and goat meat to 90 days across Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations of the Middle East – comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – would also open the door to more exports of chilled meat by sea, he said.
“The volume of sheep meat exports to the Middle East is already growing back to the heady days before the last drought and this change will lead to even more opportunities.
“This is also important for the implementation of the government’s commitment – taken to the last two elections – to phase out the live export of sheep by sea.
“I’m a firm believer in following through on your promises and the Albanese Government will see this through.
“But we have also promised to do it in an orderly and considered way, that has the least impact on Western Australian producers.
“In recent years, we’ve already seen the decline of live exports, alongside a massive expansion of sheep meat exports – including to the Middle East.
“I’m confident this policy will actually create even more opportunities for value adding in Australia, by lifting the proportion of sheep slaughtered onshore even higher.
“Which is good news for processors in the west, as thousands more head of sheep are sent to local abattoirs.
“In fact many processors, including WAMMCO and Minerva, have already indicated they intend to expand their operations to meet this demand in the coming years.”
He said there were constraints and issues that need to be dealt with, namely labour and housing.
“And that’s why we’ve said we’ll take the time to properly implement this policy.
“We will work through the recommendations of the report I received last week from the independent panel advising on our commitment, and we will work with you to implement them.”
Minister Watt said food processing was Australia’s largest form of manufacturing, and meat processing was the sector’s largest component.
All must share biosecurity costs
Mr Watt also discussed recent changes to biosecurity funding, saying it was up to all to share the responsibility.
Under new arrangements around 90 percent of biosecurity will be funded in broadly equal amounts by taxpayers and importers.
“As of 1 July 2023, these mechanisms are now in place, delivering a structural shift in how biosecurity is resourced.
“And from 1 July next year, we will also introduce a new biosecurity protection levy on producers, which seeks a mere 6 percent contribution – or around $50 million per year – of total biosecurity funding from primary producers. A small fraction of the additional costs now falling on importers and general taxpayers.”
“I acknowledge that many primary producers already invest in the biosecurity system through on-farm biosecurity and producers also support Australia’s biosecurity system through existing levies. Taxpayers and importers also do a lot.
“Biosecurity is a shared responsibility, and I think that includes contributing to the cost of safeguarding our country from the plant and animal diseases which would wipe out this entire sector.”
Measures to increase workforce
Touching on workforce challenges, he said last year’s Jobs and Skills Summit led to the formation of a tripartite Agricultural Workforce Working Group, which brought government, employer groups and unions together.
A number of measures have since been introduced to help locals build careers in the ag sector including:
- The Government funding over 13,000 Fee-Free TAFE places for locals to build their skills in agriculture courses;
- Ensuring there are 18 certificates and advanced diplomas on the apprenticeship priority list related to meat processing, meat safety, quality assurance and retailing;
- Agreeing on the principles that should underpin national labour hire licensing, to give workers greater protection against exploitation; and
- successfully advocating for a national Food Supply Chain Capacity Study, and the development of a new Ag Trade Apprenticeship.
He said the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme was also “reaching new heights”, with the number of PALM workers in Australia reaching a record of over 38,000 on September 30, 2023, with over 10,000 working in meat processing.
The PALM scheme was helping meet unskilled, low-skilled, and semi-skilled workforce shortages throughout Australia, while delivering valuable income to the Pacific workers who participate.
Changes requested by industry meant that from May this year, processors in urban areas can also apply to recruit and employ PALM scheme workers to fill crucial gaps.
Minister Watt said the Government was also moving to improve worker conditions and pay, most notably by seeking to close the labour hire loopholes that undercut pay and conditions for workers.
“We don’t think it’s fair that workers can be paid lower rates and conditions, for doing the same work, just because they are engaged via labour hire.”
The Albanese Government had also lifted the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold, or TSMIT, from $53,900 to $70,000 in July, after a decade of it having been “frozen in place”.
“I acknowledge that these measures do not have universal support,” he said.
“But we were elected on a platform of getting wages moving again, after ten years of wage stagnation, and at a time of cost of living pressures, Australian workers are depending on us to deliver.
“And through the work of the Agriculture Workforce Working Group, we are doing everything possible to deliver industry the local, PALM and other overseas workers you need.”
Livestock and meat pricing discrepancies to come under scrutiny
Discrepancies between low saleyard livestock prices and high retail meat prices will come under scrutiny in the Federal Government’s Food and Grocery Code of Conduct review, Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt also told last week’s AMIC Meat Processing and Export Conference.
“While we are beginning to see meat prices fall at the supermarket, consumers are understandably asking why there is such a discrepancy between the prices they are paying and those farmers are receiving,” Mr Watt said.
“And issues like that are exactly what will be considered in the government’s recently announced review into the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct.
“That review will examine the level of transparency in the dealings between retailers, wholesalers and suppliers.
“Something we all have an interest in – and I encourage you to get involved.
“But importantly supermarkets don’t have to wait until that review is finalised to do the right thing – farmers, consumers, processors and retailers all have an interest in fair prices and fair commercial dealings.”