PEAK wool grower body WoolProducers has hit back at a union claim that farmers and pastoralists are able to get way with paying below award rates when New Zealand shearers and wool handlers are able to work here.
The Australian Workers’ Union last week called for the award rate for shearers to be increased by at least one dollar for every sheep they shear to $4.26 a head to boost wages and help shearing contractors across New South Wales struggling to find workers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
NSW vice-president of the AWU, Ron Cowdrey said: “Farmers and pastoralists are normally able to get away with paying below award rates because they bring in around 500 workers each year from New Zealand.
“COVID-19 put a stop to that as far less Kiwis made it over to Australia It meant our shearers were finally able to take back some power and got better terms and pay,” he said.
“This year shearers are in demand and often getting paid above award rates which is unheard of.”
However, WoolProducers chief executive officer Jo Hall said the AWU’s claim of wool growers ‘normally’ paying below award rates for shearers is simply false and misleading.
“NSW and Victoria are currently in the midst of a shearer shortage and we are hearing of well above award rates being paid to get sheep shorn.
“There are a number of reasons for this current shortage but paying below the award is not one of them,” Ms Hall said.
WoolProducers said the AWU’s media release also said the industry concerns about a shearer shortage ‘haven’t eventuated’ and then makes a contradictory statement about the industry having a current labour shortage.
“The statement relating to a shearer shortage having not eventuated could not be further from the truth.
“It has been widely reported that as a result of delaying shearing by up to two months some woolgrowers are producing wool which is longer than ideal for downstream processors, resulting in discounted sales prices,” she said.
“WoolProducers are hearing anecdotally of shearers being paid by growers double the award in order to get sheep shorn, while many NSW and Victorian shearing contractors are paying shearers $4, which is well above the $3.26 award rate.
“The reason that these rates are being paid is supply and demand, there are simply not enough shearers to do the job at this point in time,” she said.
Ms Hall said the AWU is out of touch “and making baseless statements does nothing to address the issue.”
WoolProducers said it is co-ordinating efforts with relevant industry stakeholders to address the labour issue and has been working constructively with the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia.
“There is a serious issue with attraction and retention in the shearing industry, which is due to a combination of factors.
“At this point in time, we as an industry need to consider all options to try and strategically address these issues however, we won’t be making kneejerk and reactive decisions,” Ms Hall said.
“Wool growers and shearers are reliant on each other to make a living and we need a unified approach to resolve the current issue as well as working together to try and mitigate the risk of future problems.”
The AWU said the current labour shortage is seeing wool growers offering shearers around $8 a head cash in hand – which is almost double the award rate, putting more cash in the pockets of shearers but hitting contractors who have locked in contracts at the current award rate.
AWU member and shearing contractor Brendan Sullivan said shearing contractors just can’t compete with farmers who are offering these rates to some workers and many are struggling.
“This is why we need to get the award rate changed quickly to ensure we have a fair playing field.”
The AWU is also calling for the industry to introduce a mandated trainee ratio at all sheds.
Mr Cowdrey claimed the reliance on overseas workers has resulted in lower wages and killed off careers for young trainee shearers who just can’t get a start.
“They’ve been forced out by industry pressure on shearing teams to do more sheep quickly.
“That’s actively discouraged contractors from putting on trainees,” he said.
“A mandated trainee ratio in sheds across the country will ensure that more young shearers will be able to get a start in the industry and provide them with all important job security.”
National Farmers Federation CEO Tony Mahar said the AWU’s “ill-informed claims about the underpayment of shearers are baseless and reek of shameful opportunism, a pattern of behaviour that unfortunately, during the pandemic, we have come to expect from the AWU.”
He said AWU’s claims were nothing more than a self-serving membership drive, that was likely to backfire.
“Wool growers and shearers are reliant on each other for their livelihoods and continue to take a unified approach to addressing the current challenges.
“The AWU should stick to its knitting, until its representatives are ready to be constructive about the future of Australia’s shearers,” Mr Mahar said.
Click here to read the full AWU media release.
From what I hear from shearers it is mostly about conditions. Generally across the sheds I hear the main concerns start with flushing toilets, clean wash up and drinking water. These are basic employment facilities required in today’s world of employment. These areas are where unions should be aiming their energies for shearers and shed staff.
All the good shearing sheep have been shorn on time. Good shearing sheep equals more money per day. Unmulesed, heavy cutting wrinkly sheep are still waiting.
If the AWU is going to have a shred of credibility going into the future it needs to present hard evidence of wool growers paying under the award to have sheep shorn. I challange them to find one case, since the Conciliaton and Arbitration Act was passed by the Federal Parliament in 1901. This sort of nonsense diminishes all the good work unions once did to protect and enhance the lot of Australian workers. Unions need to work assiduously to enhance their credibility in the eyes of the Australian citizens, not behave like jerks.
We have had 5-6 shearers on the board for years – with one or two learners, all the time. Not a problem. As an industry, we have a responsibility to provide for learners in our own interests.