FAST-TRACKING visa workers from the Pacific Islands, then the United Kingdom and potentially India, is being investigated by a national committee aimed at easing the shearing sector’s workforce crisis.
As reports continue of wool producers unable to source shearers and dispersing Merino flocks in favour of shedding sheep and cattle, a national Wool Training Advisory Group with industry-wide representatives met for the first time last week.
The new national committee has a focus on wool harvesting training, but other issues discussed included staff shortages at peak times, increasing costs, drugs, and workplace health and safety.
The WoolTAG group appointed Australian Wool innovation director Don MacDonald as its chair, with an undertaking to work collaboratively on national issues such as shearing shed safety, contractor training support and visa options to access overseas workers.
As a former shearer and now wool broker, Mr Macdonald said he was concerned the animosity between graziers and shearers that carried over from the 1956 strike to the wide comb dispute in the early 1980s, was now re-surfacing with “a few abusing the perceived power that they now have.” This is being exacerbated by individual workers demanding and being offered increased rates or conditions, due to the shortage of shearers and wool handlers.
Another wool broker said there was a lot of agitation for action on the issue, with the situation worse in NSW than Victoria, and especially for wool handlers.
“The word ‘crisis’ is being used by many people now.
“People are talking about the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility or PALM scheme, but we need people who are job-ready from the UK, South Africa or the US,” the broker said.
“Things are getting so desperate … I heard of a NSW grower with 25,000 sheep who was supposed to have 12 workers turn up to shear his sheep, but on the first day two people turned up.
“He picked up the phone, called his stock agent and told him he wanted to sell 25,000 Merino sheep and ‘you can buy me some Dorpers, but I’m out of Merinos, this is it, I’m done.”
In other cases, contractors are losing staff to other contractors paying more to shearers and wool handlers or to growers prepared to pay higher rates, elevating the angst between shearers and flock owners, he said.
Shearing rates of up to $5-plus are being quoted in NSW, and $4-$4.50 in Victoria, with full contract rates of $13-$14-plus compared to $8-$9 a few years ago.
In South Australia, the McLachlan family’s Commonwealth Hill Station, with one of the nation’s biggest station flocks of about 30,000 Merinos has mounted a national search for eight shearers and eight shed hands to start not later than 13 March for 4-5 weeks. The operation for many years has tendered out the shearing and negotiated with contractors, and has reportedly rejected recent quoted prices. It is located west of the Stuart Highway in South Australia’s remote north-west pastoral area.
The national WoolTAG committee is timely
Mr Macdonald said the national WoolTAG “couldn’t have been formed soon enough.”
“Not so much to keep a lid on this, but to see if we can put our finger on the pressure points.
“We all know we’ve got to do more training, but the problem is we’ve got a bucket with a hole in it; we’re not retaining people,” he said.
“We’ve got to look at the reasons why we’re not retaining people and we need more numbers.”
Mr Macdonald said 97 percent of AWI’s $2000 shearer learner kits are still being used 6-12 months after being distributed, “but it does get hard to track.” He said figures showing how many people have been trained indicated shearers that have had contact with trainers, sometime 4-5 times, but counted as separate individuals.
“That’s why the numbers look huge, but that 1300 just for this year, for example, might really only be 300-400.”
Mr Macdonald said the WoolTAG meeting ascertained that the deficit in shearers is “not an insurmountable amount, it’s hundreds, not thousands” and is more in the period from September to March and particularly concentrated in areas of higher sheep numbers, including New South Wales and south-eastern South Australia.
He said the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia has seen the requirement per shearer go up from about 25,000 in 2006 to 28,810 sheep in 2021, calculated by dividing the number of sheep shorn by the number of people who list shearing as their occupation in the census.
“So again, simple maths tells you it’s not enough,” Mr Macdonald said.
Industry shearing needs have increased as shearer number fell
SCAA secretary Jason Letchford said the industry was now at 28,810 or more sheep being shorn per worker, meaning that about 3000 sheep/year were being shorn by foreign workers, mainly from New Zealand.
Mr Macdonald said existing sources of shearer trainees can be looked at again, but he thinks there is a realization that the industry has to address the immigration visa pathways and introduce other workers. He said the industry had to look at the impediments to bringing in skilled shearers and wool handlers from the United Kingdom, South Africa or South America.
He said other labour sources would be training workers the Pacific Islands or India in Australia.
“AWI is getting the Falkiner Research Station prepared, with significant money put into the infrastructure around accommodation so we can actually hold schools there and bring in perhaps a group of Indians.
“There is a particular province or state in the north (on India) that is looking to get some two-way flow of training going, because they want to send people out here and get them trained up, so they can go back and shear their own sheep.
“I think it’s not an insurmountable task to get this happening, it’s just a matter of whether we can get it happening quick enough,” he said.
“We’re very cognizant that wool growers are now into their third year of this issue and if it keeps going it doesn’t augur well for the future of the wool industry.
“I think there is a crisis in the labour market everywhere.”
The workforce problem was global, including in Australia’s red meat processing sector and in overseas woollen mills, he said.
“The difference here is we know shearing is highly skilled, it’s not just a case of importing backpackers and we can get the wool off them.
“We are actively looking at the visa pathways for already skilled shearers and ones that we can train.”
Wool is losing ground to meat sheep, cattle and goats
Mr Macdonald said he is aware of wool growers selling sheep due to the shearer shortage and moving into shedding sheep and cattle. In Queensland, most small animals in the state are behind exclusion fencing, largely initiated by AWI and the State Government to rebuild the Merino flock.
“I had a good client at Quilpie who I think was 10-12 weeks late getting his sheep shorn last year and by the time he got the wool off them he said: ‘That’s it, they’re going’ and they did.
“It was 200-bale wool clip, so 17,000-18,000 sheep … he’s got Dorpers.”
He heard of another case near Brewarrina where a producer who went into Dorpers had Brucellosis in the rams and only scanned 16pc of lambs.
“He’s got no other income apart from meat.
“So this is the severity of the problem.”
Mr Macdonald said there are many example of wool producers who have sold their sheep and went into goats because of shearer problems, but were now being hit by a drop in goat meat prices from $8-$10/kg to $3/kg and numbers were exploding.
“As has been proven in the past, when something affects the equilibrium of the wool industry, it affects other industries.”
He said emerging trends included difficulties for operations in remote areas, who would find it harder to shear during the Summer.
“They don’t want to change their management routines, but I don’t think it is going to be easy for a long time to get shearers to go out west in the middle of Summer and when the shearers can get crossbred lambs down inside (south).”
On-property conditions were another issue, with growers who persisted with antiquated “long-drop” toilet facilities, non-air conditioned huts and poor shed facilities without a lunch room, did so “at their peril”, Mr Macdonald said.
“Market forces will sort that out and they are.”
The size and weight of sheep are other issues and the WoolTAG is inviting input from Meat & Livestock Australia on ewe liveweight, Mr Macdonald said.
“I’ve got a client who said he has ewes weighing 117kg.”
He said the AWI-funded catch and drag technology can address that.
AWI will provide the WoolTAG secretariat and the group has representatives from the Australian Wool Exchange, AWI, the National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia, the SCAA, the WA Shearing Industry Association and Wool Producers Australia.
Mr MacDonald said co-operation and collaboration is the key.
“It is very positive to get a national group that represents all elements of the wool harvesting industry together and whilst we all agree that there are some very difficult issues confronting the industry, working together offers an opportunity to deliver better outcome.”
“I think what we can do with this committee by bringing some of these people together is put some of these impediments or speed bumps behind us and hopefully achieve something.
“The next meeting is around six weeks’ time and in that time we’ll get together the actual mathematics of the shortfalls and the immigration pathways and possible sources.”
PALM workers have already been in the board
Mr Letchford said the PALM visa worker gateways is now open, “but what we need to do is get it right”, but understandably the accreditation of approved employers (contractors and growers) has slowed the process of getting PALM workers formally into woolsheds.
“We understand the need to get this right and we want to get this right.”
He said one SCAA members is using the Pacific Labour Facility to become accredited and a pilot is being done with a labour hire company, with the goal of having some PALM workers in sheds by September this year.
Victorian shearing contractor and SCAA member Rob Crouch said he had seen Pacific Island workers working in woolsheds last year, doing wool handing, penning and pressing.
He was keen to participate in the PALM scheme when the visa workers become available.
“I would love half a dozen of them.
“I want the PALM scheme to be part of the shearing industry.”
Mr Crouch said he would never take job opportunities away from locals or Australians who want work in the industry, but he believed the PALM workers would be easily trained to be a reliable backstop during worker shortages, especially for crutching and wool handling.
Mr Crouch said the worker shortage is not as bad now, with a lot of people coming through the shearer schools, though he was more concerned about the availability of wool handlers.
First meeting of the Joint India Australia Wool Working Group
Mr Letchford said the entrance of UK visa workers under the UK-Australian Free Trade Agreement is being dealt with at a higher level with by the National Farmers Federation through the Federal Government.
He said a wool industry delegation is going to India next month to explore potential areas of co-operation. On the prospect of India workers coming here to work in the wool industry, he said: “let’s leave no stone unturned.”
He said the census data showed that Australia is not generating enough workers to do the work in the industry, with the numbers of shearers dropping 43pc between 2006 and 2021.
“Therefore PALM workers, the UK, India are our top three (visa worker) priorities.”
WoolProducers of Australia chief executive officer Jo Hall said the Australian delegation will go to India for the inaugural Joint India Australia Wool Working Group, at which a shearer exchange/cooperative will be discussed.
“The issues regarding attraction and retention of staff in the wool harvesting sector have been well known for a number of years, with several ad hoc working groups being convened with relevant stakeholders to try and address them,” she said.
“The convening of the national Wool TAG is the first time a structured mechanism has been formed to address these issues on an ongoing basis.
“WoolProducers has been investigating pathways to get a work ready pool of labour into the wool harvesting trade, including the establishment of specific visas with countries such as the UK, South America, South Africa,” Ms Hall said.
“In recent times, WoolProducers has been working with government to investigate the feasibility of establishing a cooperative arrangement with India in the lead in and subsequent ratification of the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement late last year.
“This issue will be discussed at the inaugural Joint India-Australia Wool Working Group to be held in Delhi next month.”
It is not just shearers that are hard to find. I am a wool classer/contractor on a small scale. Shed hands are increasingly becoming harder to find, especially good ones who want to be in the industry. I have been in the industry for over 30 years and the past few years have bee the worst for finding staff.
Also growers are being held to ransom by some contractors charging higher contract prices, but not providing a professional service. I too know of growers who have gone to shedding breeds because of the state of the shearing industry at present.
There’s lots of reasons why shearers are leaving the industry. These reasons have been building over some time. Shearers have been working hard in silence for many years. They’re not complaining, they ae just getting better work conditions in other industries. They are not always leaving for better money. It is difficult for shearers to get a home loan as the financial sector says they don’t have permanent jobs, although earning a great income. This is very much overdue to be sorted by government. Australian Wool Innovation is 18 years behind (if they start today) in leading the industry to produce a non-mulesed product that our customers require. With non-mulesed wool comes sheep that are easier to shear, not less wool. This would help attract and keep shearers in our industry. Don’t have learner schools with wrinkly sheep. Anyone would give up. Growers are behind in having better facilities. Why would you send your partner to a shed with a long drop toilet? As an industry we need to come of age. Shearers might only stay in one set of good quarters for a week; however, next week they are staying in another shed with poor quality facilities.
“I’ve got a client who said he has ewes weighing 117kg.”
‘He said the AWI-funded catch and drag technology can address that.’
Really Don? Many sheep have been bred to be too big, plus many are difficult to shear because of excessive skin wrinkle. Some grow too much wool. When will AWI address that? It’s not just MLA’s problem.
Well it’s a bit like the fruit pickers. After being brought in on hourly rates, last year the good pickers went back on piece rates because they could make way more. It’s a bit like shearing crossbred lambs and five year-old Merino wethers for the same rate, as was expected by wool growers and contractors. Now the wethers won’t get shorn unless the shearers get paid the same daily amount they can make on lambs. This should be in the award. There are different rates for crutching, but not for shearing. It’s time to get real and your wethers will get shorn on time.