SHEARING contractors and wool producers are hoping the Federal Government will work to fast-track improved visa access for United Kingdom shearers and shed staff under new free trade and visa arrangements.
But the industry is initially looking forward to accessing new ag visa workers from ASEAN countries as early as January next year to fill shed hand positions, with some shearing contractors unable to take on extra shearers because of the wool handler shortage.
The Australian sheep industry is still labouring under the impact of internal and Australia-New Zealand COVID-19 border vaccination and quarantine restrictions aggravating the shearer and wool handler shortage, delaying shearing and raising pay rates in many regions.
Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud this week announced landmark talks are underway for Indonesia to become a participating country in the Australian Agricultural Worker Visa.
Mr Littleproud welcomed news that New South Wales would allow quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated workers from 1 November 2021 and encouraged all other states to follow suit.
“We have committed to bringing in an additional 12,500 workers by March 2022 and I would call on all states to help fast-track quarantine arrangements for Pacific workers before the end of the year.”
The government is also in discussions with a number of other countries regarding their participation in the visa, but has not confirmed if this will include Northern Hemisphere countries with established shearing workforces. However, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan, has just returned from the United Kingdom where he reportedly pursued improved visa access arrangements under the proposed UK-Australia Free trade Agreement, including potentially increasing the work visa period up to three years and lifting the working holiday visa age limit to at least 40 years.
The Australian Border Force last week confirmed to Sheep Central that the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force can now grant an individual exemption from Australia’s international travel restrictions for people with critical skills required to maintain the supply of essential goods and services.
“This includes skills in medical technology, critical infrastructure, telecommunications, engineering and mining, supply chain logistics, aged care, agriculture (including shearers), primary industry, food production, and the maritime industry,” an ABF spokesperson said.
Sheep Central also last week confirmed with the Department of Agriculture that for the first time, under a realignment of the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, PALM workers will be able go through a separate process that does not require a travel exemption from the ABF Commissioner.
Shearing Contractor Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford said he was hopeful the Federal Government would fast-track improved work visa arrangements with Northern Hemisphere countries such as the UK and the United States, which have established skilled shearers and wool handlers.
“There are four countries in the UK – Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England – that already have shearers.
“We as a sector are certainly hopeful that this is part of the (Australia-UK FTA) negotiations.”
However, Mr Letchford said he hoped that some shed hand positions could be filled from about 700 workers to be brought to Australia from ASEAN countries through labour hire companies under the first phase of the new ag visa arrangements.
“This would replace the shortfall created by the backpacker not existing any more.”
Mr Letchford said there were an estimated 3000 shed hands in Australia, but the industry could find work for an extra 250-500 workers.
The first flights carrying the ag visa workers are scheduled to get to Queensland, followed by New South Wales and Victoria in January.
“The shearing industry is looking at finding shed staff that would potentially arrive in January and the visa they are coming in on is a nine-month (unskilled) visa.
“That visa would actually suit a lot of Victorian contractors who could actually have them here for all but Winter.”
Mr Letchford said the dearth of shed hands is in some areas more limiting than the shearer shortage.
“In other words, if shearers were available, they couldn’t be put on because the shortfall in available shed staff.”
He said there is not expectation that these initial ag visa workers will be able to be trained to alleviate the current shearer shortage.
WoolProducers Australia president Ed Storey said he would welcome the Federal Government fast-tracking improved access into Australia for skilled shearers from the UK.
“I know the Minister for Trade Dan Tehan has a good understanding of these issues and would certainly have taken an approach that is feasible.
“So I have every confidence that he would have represented and taken on the requirements of the sheep and wool industry in Australia amongst other industries and done what he could have,” he said.
“Freeing up of the visa arrangements are always welcome, so if he has been able to play a constructive role, we would absolutely welcome that.”
Mr Storey said cross-border movement restrictions were making it difficult for shearers to move around Australia and there was also an opportunity with the relaxed travel arrangements from New Zealand enabling the return of shearers. But he said the industry realised that training in Australia needed to improve.
“We need to take a holistic approach and short-term solutions are going to be hard to come by.”
Mr Storey said the current above award shearing and wool handling rates being paid indicated that wool growers appreciate shearers and shed hands and value the work they do “and we are happy to pay them well.”
“That’s part of the clear message we need to convey; that we welcome young people into the industry, there is a career in and you can make money at it, it’s hard work, but that’s what Australia has been built on.”
South-west Victorian shearing contractor Ardy Hauraki said he needed more shed hands to enable him to take on extra shearers, would employ UK shearers if they were accessible and was prepared to subsidise New Zealand shearers and workers able to re-enter Australia.
“I would hire five or six UK shearers and they are the ones I think we should be targeting because they only come here to work.”
Mr Hauraki has employed UK shearers, but they were only able to be employed for a short time under the current visa conditions. He would also support PALM workers into the industry and has employed a Fijian shearer who now ran a shearing run in New South Wales.
Investigations are also being made into the possibility of getting New Zealand shearers and wool handlers back into Australia, after the Federal Government announced that from Wednesday this week, people can come to Australia from New Zealand’s South Island without COVDI-19 quarantine.
Minister Tehan’s office did not respond to requests for comment.