A PLAN to raise New Zealand sheep shearing rates is unlikely to stop the influx of Kiwi shearers into Australia or attract expatriate NZ workers back home.
In an effort to recruit and retain labour the New Zealand Shearers Contractors Association (NZSCA) has ratified a landmark improvement in wages and entitlements of up to 25 percent from July 1.
However, Australian contractors and the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia believe the NZ shearing rate increase is still well-short of being competitive with Australia’s rates.
The NZSCA has said it is thought about half of Australia’s sheep are shorn by New Zealand shearers and more than 50pc of workers in some Australian shearing teams are New Zealand-born.
Victorian shearing contractor Atawhai ‘Ardy’ Hauraki estimated the proposed NZ shearing rate increase NZ$1.70 to NZ$2 (or A$1.84) a sheep would not stop the shearers that have been coming over, with Australian shearers generally being paid just over A$3. The Australian rate is also set to rise in July this year.
“The money is still not good enough to keep them in New Zealand full-time.
“The money here is a hell of a lot better here than in New Zealand; even at the price of NZ$2 a head there is still a fair bit of a difference,” Mr Hauraki said.
He said New Zealand has lost a lot of sheep to dairy farming and shearing was now very seasonal. Shearers might only be able to shearer in one area for 3-4 months before moving and it was expensive to travel between the islands. Australia’s own shearer shortage would also mean continued movement of shearers west across the Tasman Sea, he said.
Mr Hauraki said there is no set award in New Zealand and NZ contractors “move their rates around like you wouldn’t believe.” New Zealand also loses a lot of wool handlers to Australia, he said.
Mr Hauraki came to Australia as a 15 year-old in the early 1980s and has been contracting with wife Teresa for eight years under the Southern Shearing banner. Most of the SS team are from New Zealand and he agreed with the estimate that about half of Australia’s sheep are shorn by Kiwi shearers.
SCAA secretary Jason Letchford said there was a view in New Zealand that Australia had “stolen all their shearers and when are we giving them back, that’s their thought at the moment.” At the SCAA’s recent annual general meeting, contractors estimated the number of NZ shearers in Australia was “more than 25pc, but less than 50pc” of the total, he said. In some areas there are no NZ shearers, but in western New South Wales and Western Australia 50-60pc or more of shed team workers were New Zealanders.
Mr Letchford went to the last NZSCA annual general meeting and learned that NZ shearers were paid the equivalent of about A$1.40 on average, whereas Australian shearers consistently get paid A$3.10-$3.20 per sheep.
Any increase in the NZ shearing rate would have to be significant to be competitive with Australia’s award rate, he said.
“There would need to be a material increase to make an impact; marginal increases I don’t think would make any different to someone making a decision as whether they were here or there.
“If it was on a par, I think, certainly.”
Mr Letchford said the formula for comparison would need to include the number of sheep able to be shorn in each country per year, plus the exchange rate.
“You can go and increase the rate by 20pc and then you can have a foreign exchange fluctuation and you lose it – it’s a hard game for them.”
Incoming NZSCA president Mark Barrowcliffe said he was extremely pleased with the recommendation to raise workers’ pay and entitlements by up to 25pc.
“We are proud to be leading initiatives to address the most serious challenges in our industry and I’m particularly pleased for the staff of our members.
“This is the first step in responding to the recruitment and retention challenges but we’re also developing medium and long term plans to ensure this is sustainable.”
The NZSCA said the rate rise is the result of several months of consultation with members and non-members and has been launched in conjunction with a new strategic plan outlining the goals of the NZSCA over the next three years. The plan focused on improving the NZSCA profile, lifting recruitment and retention rates, improving training opportunities and leading new standards in health and safety in the industry.
Mr Barrowcliffe acknowledged that addressing the pay gap with Australia was critical in keeping more New Zealanders in the industry.
“This decision provides workers the opportunity to see real career opportunities and create meaningful opportunities for themselves and their families.
“They do not need to go to Australia now to achieve this,” he said.
The NZSCA executive committee said it was working hard to communicate the details of the recommended terms to shearing contractors, farmers and the staff of both groups.
Recently retired NZSCA president Jamie McConachie said that it was important all parties understood the changes.
“We know there will be questions from farmers but without implementing these changes there is a real risk that in the near future we could not service farmer’s needs.”
Mr McConachie said he was looking forward to being part of the ongoing discussions to communicate the recommendations and also saw this as an opportunity to continue to improve the employment framework for the industry.
“We want to be acknowledged as an industry where fair employment conditions are the norm,” Mr McConachie said, in reference to previous historical issues where entitlements haven’t always been fairly treated.
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