Farmers Furious Over New Labour Restrictions

Farmers furious over new labour restrictions

By Mitchell Hall
National Business Review
Tuesday August 26 2008 – 03:35pm

The Department of Labour has tightened up requirements for recruitment of qualified farm workers from overseas, right at the start of the current dairy farm season.

There is a major and acute labour shortage in the dairy industry, particularly in the South Island where in places such as Ashburton there is effectively zero unemployment.

Federated Farmers is seething at the timing of the move and claims the new guidelines are impractical.

The difficulty is with the criteria that is set by Immigration for certain job descriptions in New Zealand,” says Fed Farm dairy chairman Lachlan McKenzie.

“For example, if you have an assistant herd manager, they wont accept a veterinary degree from the Philippines, which seems absurd. Were saying that the employer should have the ability to say whether a potential employee has the skill set to be able to do a job or not. Not some official, because the reality is, nobody from overseas can have practical experience in New Zealand farming because its so different here.

“What theyre saying is, because theyve got to have an equivalent from overseas, they dont accept a vet degree, because it doesnt have on-farm, New Zealand practical experience so therefore they cant come to work on a farm in New Zealand.

He said a significant number of people from the Philippines were working in the South Island, and not only from the Philippines from a large number of countries, that are working in the dairy industry in New Zealand.

The Department of Labour says the number of people issued immigration permits with occupations farm worker, manager, farmhand, supervisor or farmer has dropped from 876 in 2006/07 to 754 in 2007/08.

Permits issued to herdsmen also fell from 188 to 126 over the same period.

Added together there was a total of 1064 permits approved in 2006/07 and 880 permits approved in 2007/08.

The labour shortage is so acute, that, were getting people in Canterbury for example who are advertising, who are now getting large numbers of enquiries from in town, says McKenzie.

From tradespeople and senior professional people in town, who are now applying and looking for a change in career, to go out on farm. There are people in their early twenties, whose total wage package would be in the range of $60k or bigger.

The Department of Labour says the farming industry helped to draw up the guidelines, and the department is merely enforcing them more consistently.

It would be fair to say that we had been helpful with letting people in, whose practical experience may not have been entirely relevant to the jobs that they were doing, says senior communications adviser Iain Mclean.

For some of these degrees, for example the vet degree, the practical experience component of it wouldnt necessarily include working on a dairy farm, so they dont have any practical experience working with dairy cows, so they dont meet that category.

Mr Mclean says theyve had complaints from the industry saying workers have come here without practical experience, but couldnt name anyone who had done so.

When asked if the tightening up had led to a severe shortfall of labour, right at the start of the season, he said, Well … maybe, yes. But our argument would be that if the interpretation was too loose, people werent getting the people they wanted for the job.

Federated Farmers however, maintain that at the moment, getting any workers at all is a far bigger concern than getting the exact right one, with the exact right experience.

In the South Island in particular, theres a gross shortage of workers and theres a whole lot of ramifications we cant shut the farms down because there are animal welfare issues. Its not like a factory where we can shut one machine down and operate on twenty five per cent capacity.

Were open to compromise, but its the tightening of the interpretation of the rules thats causing grief. We want to be able to work together to have a good suitable outcome that everyone can live with, says McKenzie.