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.