Skilled migrant labour vital for dairy

Posted on Tuesday, July 03, 2018 - Category: In the News

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.

 

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