Skilled migrant labour vital for dairy

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.

Skilled migrant labour vital for dairy

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.

Where to from here - the 457 visa

Apr 21, 2017

Dairy is a highly dynamic industry offering lots of opportunities for career growth and development. However, it is no secret that we have domestic labour shortages in regional and rural areas.

Our preference is always to hire Australian workers, but there are not always enough experienced farmhands to meet the demand of our industry. This is despite more than a decade of offering training courses and pathway programs for Australian workers to enter the dairy industry.

ADF has continued to lobby the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) for regulation amendments to visas allowing overseas workers to fill vital on-farm and off-farm roles.

This week, the Government announced that the 457 Temporary Work visa will be abolished and replaced with the completely new Temporary Skill Shortage visa by March 2018. ADF is concerned with the changes and is seeking clarification on many aspects from the DIPB.

We have now been advised that the current visa changes will have no impact on the Dairy Industry Labour Agreement, which allows dairy farmers to recruit senior farm hands. We have been assured that:

  • our existing labour agreements remaining in effect;
  • our existing visa holders not impacted unless they apply for another visa impacted by the changes outside of the labour agreement programme; or
  • new nominations that we intend to lodge/related visa applications are not impacted – including applications for occupations which have been ‘removed’ from the standard programme or are now subject to a caveat in the standard programme but remain specified in our agreement.

We also understand that under these changes, which come into effect immediately:

  • dairy cattle farmers are included on the short-term skilled occupation list and only able to apply for a 2-year visa;
  • 2-year visas can only be renewed once, which will lead to an increase in administrative burden and red tape on farmers looking to access these new visas;
  • dairy, like other agricultural commodities is not included on the medium to long term strategic skilled occupation list to access 4-year visas; and
  • changes have been made to the Employer Nomination Scheme (subclass 186) visa and to the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (subclass 187) visa.

We are still in the process of gaining clarification on what will happen to current visa applicants who are waiting on approvals and the additional occupations available to support regional employers. 

ADF supports the employment of overseas workers to fill vital on-farm roles. We will continue to liaise with government to ensure dairy farmers that need to employ overseas staff can do so.

John McQueen

Interim ADF Chief Executive Officer

 

ADF opposes backpacker tax

Feb 05, 2016

Australian Dairy Farmers (ADF) has joined the National Farmers Federation (NFF) in calling for the Federal Government to halt the proposed backpacker tax.

As part of the 2015 Federal Budget the government announced that from 1 July 2016 all working holiday makers will be taxed at a rate of 32.5 per cent on all income.

ADF President Simone Jolliffe said that dairy farmers rely on backpackers for vital on-farm roles which cannot be filled locally or to complement their existing workforce during peak times.

“The dairy industry is suffering a skilled labour shortage which means that we need overseas workers, such as backpackers, when we cannot find suitable local staff,” Ms Jolliffe said.

“If this tax is brought in as it currently stands, backpackers may choose to travel to other countries such as New Zealand.”

“This would be damaging to the dairy industry, regional communities and the tourism industry, as well as the broader economy.”

Backpackers currently earn, on average, about $15,000 while in Australia, and may be eligible to claim the tax-free threshold.

“ADF believes it is fair and reasonable for backpackers to pay some tax, but 32.5c is excessive,” Ms Jolliffe said.

“We are supporting NFF’s position that 19 per cent, achieved through deactivation of the tax-free threshold, is fairer to both backpackers and the agricultural industry which relies on them.”

We encourage everyone who understands the significant contribution backpackers make to agriculture to support NFF’s campaign by signing an online petition.

To join the petition, go to https://www.change.org/p/australian-government-stop-the-backpacker-tax


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