Shearing contractors canvass above-award pay rates

Terry Sim, January 20, 2021

SCAA secretary Jason Letchford.

AUSTRALIA’S shearing contractors are being surveyed about setting viable above-award rates for their experienced shearers and shedhands as the Australian Workers Union also calls for a lift in shearer pays.

Due to COVID-19 New Zealand worker and interstate travel restrictions, Australian shearers are being lured from contractor teams with offers of up to $6-$7-plus cash to shear sheep, with “tucker thrown in”.

The pay offers are sometimes more than double the national pastoral award rate of around $3.25/sheep and contrast to a contractor’s rate to producers, including payment of shed hands, classer, and cook, WorkCover, insurance and GST, of close to $9 per sheep.

Shearing Contractors of Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford said the SCAA is circulating a survey about setting a recommended “viable” above-award rate for experienced employees of association members.

“It would be a recommendation and certainly not a legally binding agreement like an enterprise bargaining agreement or similar, but would be above the award.

“So indirectly we are not against seeing our workforce being paid more.”

Market has gone beyond the pastoral award system

Mr Letchford said an above-award rate for shearers and shedhands would “depressurise” the current situation, “where a large enough minority of the workers are going to the highest bidder.”

“We need to give them stability.

“The market has already gone beyond the current award system.”

Mr Letchford said Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows from 2006 to 2016 the shearing industry lost 32 percent of its shearers.

“It wouldn’t be haphazard to suggest that it has fallen further since 2016.”

He said although some shearers can earn up to $3000 a week, only about 18pc of Australian shearers – about one in six — earn more than $84,000 a year, when the average weekly for full-time wage in Australia is about $89,000.

The industry’s “saving grace’ has been the drop in flock numbers coinciding with the fall in workforce, Mr Letchford said.

“But what we are seeing now is those two curves crossing, where the national flock has bottomed out and with better seasonal conditions we are going to build on those flock numbers, but we haven’t built on our workforce.

“That’s why we are at this crossroad where the demand for shearers has exceeded supply and hence the market forces come into play.”

The AWU last week called for a $1/sheep lift in the pastoral award shearing rate to about $4.26 while also claiming farmers had been able to pay below award rates because they can bring in workers from New Zealand.

No evidence linking low shearing rates with NZ workers

Mr Letchford said there was no evidence that farmers had been able to get away with paying lower pay rates to shearers due to the estimated 500 New Zealand workers that work in Australian wool sheds each year, as claimed by the AWU.

“I completely categorically refute that.

“There is absolutely no evidence of any under-award payments, and if so we have a robust industrial relations system that has always successfully stamped out any such behaviour.”

But Mr Letchford welcomed the AWU’s statement that the award rates for shearers should increase.

“I welcome that because the industry needs their presence.”

He said the pendulum has swung too far from what was once a unionised shearer workforce and the industry was reaping the consequences in terms of workplace conditions, safety and standards.

“The union has always been the underwriter of standards and worker health and safety.”

But although he recognised that the philosophies of SCAA and the AWU were aligning, Mr Letchford said it would be very difficult  for the AWU to get a shearing rate increase from the Fair Work Commission because it would need to be justified on the grounds of a productivity and cost of living increases.

Mr Letchford said the current award rates were failing the industry on worker retention, but were not the “silver bullet” and the industry needed to also attract learners and train them to increase the supply of workers. The SCAA would welcome a mandated trainee ratio in sheds, as suggested by the AWU. He said award was not there to regulate training, but people need to be encouraged to invest in trainees.

“We all know that we need more learners.”

But the SCAA did not want to see any increase in the cost of learners to its members.

“And the entrance level of pay being $1200 a week as a minimum is certainly an attractive proposition to get people to come and learn in the industry.”

WoolProducers and AWU to consult with members

WoolProducers Australia chief executive officer Jo Hall said the peak body would be meeting with industry bodies to look at worker attraction and retention mechanisms, but had not discussed the AWU’s call to lift the pastoral award shearing rate.

NSW vice-president of the AWU Ron Cowdrey said the union will continue to consult with members, potential members and industry stakeholders before making any decision on what action will be taken and when on its call to lift award rates.

“It will be consulting with all parties about increasing rates for all shed staff and not just shearers,” he said.


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  1. Bill Lergessner, March 15, 2024

    When I was learning shearing in the 60s, we learnt while shed handing before the run started and you got taught by the shearers.
    I think now we are short of shearers because 90 percent of shed hands are women and good ones at that. Plus their were a lot of good shearers around then too.

  2. Christopher Bowden, September 29, 2021

    Shearers are getting paid $3.80 a head here now. I think that’s fair enough. Sheep are bigger now, wool prices not too bad, and sheep and meat prices are very good.
    Crops here in Western Australia are looking fantastic this year and there is lots of feed around.
    A lot of farmers on our run buying Evos now, improving safety and willing to work together on issues that arise.
    Personally, I think it’s a great time to be a shearer. If you are in a good run you can make great money and be home every night. You also get a bit more freedom than other jobs and you’re pretty much your own boss in a sense.
    I am looking forward to working with farmers into the future.

  3. Jim Gordon, January 28, 2021

    The debate shouldn’t be about the $3.25 for each sheep shorn. It should be linked to how long it takes to shear a sheep. I have been recently exposed to good shearers taking 10 minutes to shear sheep with dermatitis and flyblown wool etc. These are the sheep/flocks that need to pay the shearers more per sheep.
    If sheep producers produce sheep that comb and are good shearing, then the shearer can make a good living by more numbers shorn each run (two-hour period).
    There is no point in biting the hand that feeds you. Keep the rates where they are and improve the workplace facilities. Breed sheep that can be shorn within a reasonable timeframe and are fly-proof.
    Shearers shouldn’t have to shear flyblown sheep. It is the worst job to be done on a farm. Sheep producers should have to shear all flyblown sheep themselves. They would fix their sheep overnight.

  4. Quin Plozza, January 21, 2021

    I was a professional shearer in WA in the 1980s and 1990s, and I shore up to 1000 to 1400 a week when going hard. But I got out in 1995 because work was getting too seasonal. I’d have to travel way to far to find work and compete with fly-in shearers for the work, which did keep the award and conditions lower. And it’s not got any better since then.
    I got into mining and then oil and gas and now earn $200,000 for a even-time roster – three weeks on, three weeks off. The shearer’s average pay needs to be increased from $84,000 to $130,000-$140,000 or you will always struggle to get shearers. I certainly wouldn’t go back and do it for $84,000 a year, especially with such poor working conditions in the sheds. I only shear my own sheep now.
    Also, when I started out I had to do private shearing — cocky shearing — until I could shear at least 150 a day, because contractors wouldn’t take on learners as they lose money on them and it would be the same now. There are lots of people going through all the shearing schools, but up until this year, hardly any ever got a job shearing, especially when they’ve been able to fly guns over. The contractor needs to be given an incentive to put on a local for a few years until he’s up to speed. Just my two cents worth.

    • Tom Casey, January 24, 2021

      You only need to shear 500 a week on the current rate to make about $80,000 a year. So you want the rate to go up $2.50 to $5.80 odd? I used to shear 40,000 most years in my prime. There are guys shearing 600 lambs a day down here. That would be $3500 for a day’s work. I think the contractors are doing very nicely –racehorses, plenty of wives and V8 cruisers. Not much has changed mate, in their secret society, the contractors association, where you need to be a member to read what they are discussing. Why can’t they just be honest with people? “Been a hot day” would have been hotter crutching this time of year up at Boulia, which I did a couple of years. No power dropping down to thirty degrees sometime during the night. But they were bloody good shearing in May.

  5. Brenton Hinkley, January 20, 2021

    We have always paid over the award, quite happily. The main thing is, I get a good quality job.

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