Jul 03, 2018
We need to address the skilled labour shortage on Australian dairy farms. It’s an issue that has been around for years and can be resolved by the federal Government making minor changes to its skilled migration program.
Technology, automation, intensification, self-regulation and globalisation are making our farms more complex and skills based. In the context of an ageing workforce and difficulties attracting and retaining young people to farming, the dairy industry has become more reliant on skilled foreign workers to operate its farms.
Dairy is Australia’s third largest agricultural industry, with $4.3 billion gross value of milk production and employment of 26,000 people on farm. Despite a couple of difficult years of below average milk prices the industry has added over 3,000 new jobs on farm over the past five years.
Unfortunately, a number of these jobs are being filled by Australians who are ill-equipped to handle the roles. They find it difficult to satisfy food safety standards, administer veterinary and other animal husbandry requirements, operate technology or are generally unable to fulfil the obligations of a skilled dairy farm manager or leading hand.
A consequence of not meeting these performance expectations is turnover. In the last study of pastoral industries employeeturnover was reported to costthe dairy industry between$336and$364millionayear or an average of $22,500peremployeeperfarm. Given that most dairy farms operate as professional businesses paying above award rates, these figures are simply unacceptable.
Some success has been achieved in the industry via Australia’s previous 457 visa class system. Prior to March 2018 when it was abolished, local farmers were able to sponsor skilled overseas workers to work temporarily up to four years in Australia. This enabled the dairy industry to recruit foreigners who had worked for many years on dairy farms or completed tertiary education in agriculture science in their home country.
The Government made changes after the Fair Work Commission found 40 per cent of 457 visa holders were no longer employed by a sponsor or were being paid well below the statutory minimum wage of $53,900. This is significant given Australia’s record high immigration program of 190,000 per annum, most of whom come under the skilled migration program. The unfortunate thing for the dairy industry is that it now must suffer because of other industries abusing the system.
The two new skilled visa classes introduced by the Government include a Short-term stream and a Medium-term stream. The Short-term stream is for employers seeking temporary overseas skilled workers in occupations included on the Short-term Skilled Occupation List (STSOL) for up to two years. The Medium-term stream is for employers seeking highly skilled overseas workers to fill medium-term critical skills in occupations on the Medium and Long-term Strategic Skills List (MLTSSL) for up to four years, with eligibility to apply for permanent residence after three years.
Occupations listed on the STSOL and MLTSSL are determined by the Department of Jobs and Small Business based on an annual survey and analysis of the Australian labour market. The issue for the dairy industry is the survey rarely goes out to farmers, so its needs are not reflected in the list determination.
The department uses the occupations listed on the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO). It describes the dairy industry as having one job on farm - a Dairy Cattle Farmer, which is completely out of touch with reality.
The more accurate depiction is Dairy Australia’s National Dairy Farmer Survey, which lists five occupations on a dairy farm. In order of skill these include a Business Manager, Production Manager, Senior Farm Hand, Farm Hand and Assistant Farm Hand. The difference highlights the need for an ANZSCO overhaul to reflect the professional and actual nature of dairy farming in the 21st century.
In March 2018 the Department listed a Dairy Cattle Farmer on the STSOL only. This means the amount of time an immigrant can work on a dairy farm has been reduced from four years under the previous 457-visa system to two years under the new STSOL. Given dairy farm jobs are permanent (as opposed to seasonal) and struggling to attract workers at the senior level, this categorisation is a backward step for the industry.
Resolving labour shortages in the positions of Senior Farm Hand, Production Manager and Business Manager can only be achieved by listing them on the MLTSSL. Skilled migrants will only apply for these roles when they are guaranteed four, not two, years of employment and have a pathway to permanent residence.
The Government must ensure its skilled migration program reflects Australia’s workforce needs. All occupations need to be included in the lists and immigration targets set based on numbers required in each occupation.
Agriculture is a growth industry in Australia. We are working on a plan to increase our gross value of production from $60 billion currently to over $100 billion in 2030. There are many drivers required to achieve this target. A permanent skilled workforce is one of the highest priorities.
Jul 02, 2018
Farmers are admired for the way they reach out and help neighbours and friends in time of need. However, they are also renowned for keeping their problems to themselves.
Despite farming being a good industry to be in, we are all familiar with the challenges of farm life.It can be tough at times. Financial pressure. Overwork. Isolation. And it is a tragic reality that this takes both a physical and mental toll on the health of individual farmers.
A report by the National Centre for Farmer Health found that rural populations have an elevated risk of suicide, with a 66 per cent higher risk of death than those in metropolitan areas.
Stress and depression can have tragic consequences and while there is no difference in the prevalence of mental illness between city and regions, those in the country remain at a distinct disadvantage to our city cousins.
It is harder to find help in regional, rural or remote areas. Poor access to services and professionals, cost, and continued reluctance to seek help all contribute to more pronounced mental illness consequences in rural communities, including a suicide rate almost double what it is in the cities, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
A report by mental health charity Sane Australia also found that access to medical assistance in the bush is compromised, owing to around 50 per cent less money being spent on mental health services in rural and remote Australia.
Add to this travel times required to reach medical services and the stigma around mental illness still felt in many smaller communities and the issue becomes a real problem.
It is a problem that extends beyond the Australian outback. We can look to the United States to see that our farmers are not alone in battling depression and other mental health issues.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled a breakdown of suicide rates by profession, and farmers have the highest rates of suicide by more than 30 percent. This study found almost identical factors contributing to depression amongst primary producers, including social isolation, financial strain, and barriers to seeking mental health services.
The statistics are clear considering the Australian dairy industry is in a period of recovery after two challenging seasons and cash flow for many farmers remains under pressure, while the global dairy industry continues to suffer a downturn. There are reports from the States that dairy farms are disappearing due to the downturn and many farmers, while incredibly resilient, are now at poverty level.
We tend to acknowledge the strengths and the virtues of the dairy industry, such as improved prospects in a global market, but we must also pay attention to the many farmers continue to suffer significant financial pressure.
We understand some farmers are suffering emotionally and physically because they simply do not have the resources to get by. We are aware of families suffering because the farm must come first, and the farm is struggling.
There are of course understandable sensitives around pride and privacy and the silence can be deafening.
This could be because key individuals and organisations do not realise this situation exists, or because farmers are trying to project a positive but unrealistic image of our industry.
There is little point in talking about where we will be in two years’ time if we can’t get through the present.
Some of the consequences of this silence include farmers feeling isolated or not realising they could seek help, farming families suffering short and long-term damage as they try to cope, pressure on paying bills, impact on children’s education and farmers departing the industry.
This is a conversation we need to have. And we need to take care that we are not blaming farmers for poor business skills, or some other perceived ‘lack’.
We must find ways to talk about it, so we can create positive opportunities for farmers to help themselves and for others to help them. We must aim to take away the stigma associated with financial stress. We’re all in this together.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, call:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
May 03, 2018
The Murray Darling Basin Plan has been subjected to countless reviews and inquiries since its inception, but the message from irrigators remains clear – we cannot abandon the plan.
A recent inquiry by the Murray Darling Basin Authority recommended slashing the water recovery target by 70 gigalitres (GL) – 18 per cent – to lessen the impact on irrigation communities.
Such a move has been supported by farmers, but it has been bitterly opposed by environmental groups and the Greens, who claim the Basin Plan is failing to deliver for the environment.
The Greens have already succeeded in having the proposed changes to the federal Water Act disallowed by the Senate, but the issue is expected to return to the upper house on May 7 and could threaten the entire Plan.
This will surely inflame tensions with Victoria and NSW. The two states have already flagged a willingness to pull the plug on the Basin Plan if the disallowance motion gets through, leaving the whole show on the brink of collapse.
An emotional response would only be a disaster for irrigation communities along the east coast. We need our political leaders to come back to the table in good faith with a vision to act on behalf of the whole community.
The Basin Plan is flexible -- water should be able to come from a range of projects and alternative arrangements agreed by the States. It does not have to be recovered solely from irrigators through on-farm projects. The key is that the ‘upwater’ is found without negative social or economic impacts to communities along the river.
Australian Dairy Farmers has strongly advocated for the recovery of 605GL in offsets and would like to see the Basin states deliver the full 605GL to be sure no further water is recovered from irrigators.
ADF and the Australian Dairy Industry Council have remained firm in advocating to halt Federal Government water buybacks at 1500 GL and urging the Government to make clear that it will not seek to recover the additional 450GL if it would harm our farming communities.
The Government is restricted by the Water Act from purchasing more than 1500 GL. It has so far purchased around 1160 GL and can still purchase 340GL. But the 450GL of upwater is exempt from the restriction, meaning that about 790GL can still be bought by the Government.
Alternatively, the upwater can include entitlements given up by farmers in return for Federal funding of on-farm upgrades. Either way, we are faced with the prospect of more water being ripped from productive agricultural use.
All states agreed to the offsets as a mechanism for achieving the goals of the plan. No State should be walking away from that agreed process now. The offsets will deliver better environmental outcomes than merely sending more water down the river and hoping for the best.
The process is now being complicated further by a South Australian Royal Commission into the Plan, which intends to invite witnesses to attend formal hearings from all four Basin states.
It is now likely this could change with the election last month of a new government in South Australia. The Australian Government is understood to be encouraging SA Premier Steven Marshall to wind back the Royal Commission’s terms of reference.
This is only the latest in a series of reviews and inquiries that have for more than five years plagued the Basin Plan. Running concurrently with the Royal Commission is a federally funded review which will, again, look at the effectiveness of the Plan.
We’re relying on all parties to reaffirm their commitment to the Basin Plan and reassure us that in retaining control of water, they are operating in good faith. It’s time to quit the review process and continue with the agreed course.
The Plan will never be able to satisfy all parties equally. But it is vital we stick to the original goal and ensure the 2750GL target is delivered as agreed, in part through 605GL in environmental offsets.
May 03, 2018
It isn’t easy being a dairy farmer. A lot of people think we just milk cows all day, but the reality is farmers need a wide range of skills to manage a sustainable farm business.
In fact, the National Centre for Dairy Education estimated that dairy farmers need over 170 different skills to run a successful farm business.
Apart from milking, farmers have to feed livestock, make hay and silage, operate machinery, protect waterways, manage milk quality assurance and supervise staff.
It really is a skilled profession, and one that rarely gets the credit it deserves. This is underscored by the crippling skills shortage that the industry continues to face.
To this end, we rely on our political representatives to address the problem. Unfortunately, there is still a misapprehension from some in Canberra that farming is an unskilled industry which should be able to source labour from the pool of unemployed in regional areas.
Reality again is different. The local labour just doesn’t exist, and many dairy employers rely on skilled migrants brought to Australia under subclass 457 visas to fill core on-farm roles. Many farmers even consider overseas workers to be integral to their long-term business strategy.
The dairy industry has found the 457 visa very useful. It has enabled us to recruit skilled workers from overseas for farm management roles. And it has also given these workers a pathway to permanent residency. Everybody wins.
We were struck a blow when the 457 visa was abolished and replaced from March this year by the Temporary Skill Shortage visa, a scheme that operates in two streams – for short-term labour for up to two years with the option of a two-year renewal, and for medium-term labour for up to four years. Only the second stream offers the possibility of permanent residency.
Industries eligible under each stream is determined by the Regional Occupations List. Dairy farming is currently listed as a short-term skill, which will only hamper our ability to use the scheme because the prospect of permanent residency is an important factor in attracting skilled overseas workers.
It should be clear to even casual onlookers that agricultural industries are not just facing a “temporary” skills shortage. This is a problem we have been battling for years and one that will only grow worse unless it is addressed now.
It is strange that dairy farming has remained on the Regional Occupations List yet has not been placed on the Medium Labour TSS.
One concern is that dairy farming could be wiped from the list entirely when the list is reviewed in July. We can’t let that happen and advocates in the industry – including Australian Dairy Farmers and Dairy Australia – are working to ensure farmers’ voices remain strong on this issue.
It is vital that while the skills shortage persists, dairy farmers remain on the Regional Occupations List and that the federal Government take immediate action to allow skilled overseas workers to gain longer visas and a pathway to permanent residency.
Given the size of the dairy industry it will take considerable time to correct the documented skills shortage with suitably qualified Australian workers.
In the meantime, dairy farmers will continue to struggle to staff their businesses with skilled workers and need to have reliable access to skilled overseas workers.
Let’s not forget that farmers are not the only people who stand to benefit from allowing skilled overseas workers opportunities in Australia. A recent report into the rural workforce found that immigrant farmers not only fill labour shortages, but they also bring with them new technological insights gained overseas to apply to Australian farming, providing a valuable contribution to regional Australia.
As the Regional Occupations List comes under review, this insight hopefully provides our decision-makers with food for thought and an urgent lifeline to an industry that still faces a critical shortage of skilled labour.