AUSTRALIA’S shearing contractors have welcomed the pending introduction of quarantine-free travel to New Zealand later this month.
Some New Zealand-based shearers and wool handlers are expected to start returning to Australia, after NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Adern yesterday said Australians will be allowed to travel to the country without going into 14-day quarantine on arrival, from Monday, 19 April.
However, the Ms Ardern said travellers would need to plan for the possibility of having their travel disrupted and quarantine reimposed if there was a coronavirus outbreak in Australia.
The cost of quarantine for New Zealanders returning home during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major obstacle to NZ shearers and wool handlers coming to Australia.
It has been estimated that about 500 NZ shearers and wool handlers usually come to Australia each year, but the COVID-19 pandemic has halted this, delaying shearing across Australia and forcing rates up in most states.
Contractors expecting some NZ workers to return
Shearing Contractors Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford believed that after 19 April any NZ shearer or wool handler working in Australia would be able to return home without going into quarantine.
“That was a potential impediment and removing that impediment is certainly going to get anyone who had an element of doubt in their mind over the line to come over here in later Winter early Spring.
“But until they arrive here and see the supply and demand….we will probably know more about that by following the (shearing) rates and seeing if they get driven down as a result of the greater supply and demand,” he said.
Some SCAA members, mainly in New South Wales, have been paying shearing and shed hand rates 15 percent above the award since February this year to help retain workers. Mr Letchford said any influx of NZ workers will have an impact, but he believes industry labour demand will still be stronger than supply.
Western Victorian contractor Emma Morven said she expected more NZ shearers and wool handlers would come across after 19 April, but mainly into New South Wales.
A Team Shearing Contractors owner Robbie Crouch at Geelong said he was already organising for three professional NZ wool handlers to come over this weekend.
“As soon as the all-clear comes they are rolling on in.”
He believed the wool handlers could travel to Australia before 19 April, but would only enjoy a quarantine-free return to New Zealand after that date. Mr Crouch wasn’t expecting many NZ shearers to come into Victoria at this time of the year and he had been proactive in starting young Australian shearers in his teams.
“It’s the professional New Zealand wool handlers we really really miss.”
Southern Shearing co-owner Ardy Hauraki at Killarney in Victoria said some NZ shearers had already told him they would be coming back this year after the quarantine restrictions ease, but not probably before September, unless they go into New South Wales where shearing is still underway. The main seasonal shearing is winding down in Victoria.
“A lot of them won’t come over before the (NZ) pre-lamb shearing – when they shear all the Merinos in Central Otago — which starts in June and runs into September,” Mr Hauraki said.
Tocumwal-based contractor Jason Wingfield said extra shearers and wool handlers were still needed in New South Wales, but the possibility of quarantine rules being reimposed with any new outbreak in Australia might make some NZ workers hesitant to travel, although the cost of quarantine in New Zealand was not a big obstacle for high-performing shearers.
Despite the recent relaxation of restrictions on overseas shearers entering the United Kingdom, Mr Letchford said Australians still required an exemption to leave the country for destinations other than New Zealand and he did not expect many to try to get to the UK to work. Kangaroo Island shearer Paul McMahon who has worked in the UK also did not believe many Australian shearers would be looking to work in the UK or the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I just err on the side of caution, I don’t want a dose of it.”
He believed quarantine-free travel to NZ would help the movement of workers – with some NZ shearers interested in working at the improved $4/sheep rate, but he believed the shortage of shearers was not confined to Australia.
“The biggest problem I believe is the size of the animal.
“That’s the elephant in the room they are not looking at.”
He believes the shortage of shearers in Australia will be worse this year, with shearing rates staying around $4/sheep and workers wanting to work locally near their homes. Mr Hauraki also said the industry’s labour shortage issue would not be solved by the increased rate and the industry needed to improve on-farm conditions and facilities for workers.
“It’s not because we can’t get them, it’s because we haven’t got them.
“And if we are not creating a pathway for them to come through and the shearing training, and if we think we are going to rely on New Zealand all the time, we might be out of luck,” he said.
Fear of a COVID outbreak still a concern
New Zealand Shearing Contractors Association president Mark Barrowcliffe said if COVID breaks out or the ‘traffic light’ system between New Zealand and Australia changes, then there still may well be a cost here to return to New Zealand.
Mr Barrowcliffe believes the Australia-NZ travel bubble changes plus Australia’s increased shearing rates will mean more NZ shearers coming over after April 19, but he said the fear of not being able to return quickly and easily will still be a major concern.
“We encourage staff to follow the work and the dollar, it’s possible the lack of being able to return quickly and easily for New Zealand seasons that really worries me.”