The red meat industry needs workers, but the problem is finding them in regional New Zealand. A new group was formed last year to address the labour shortage that is affecting the industry.
The Meat Industry Association (MIA) founded its Human Resources Leaders Group last year. This comprises senior human resources managers from five of New Zealand’s largest meat companies, working together strategically on pan-industry challenges.
The leaders are focused on a number of the sector’s inter-related and complex work force matters, MIA policy manager Paul Goldstone explains: “The labour shortage, ongoing immigration issues, a number of court cases that will affect the industry, health and safety, the new industrial relations legislation and various ongoing skills and capability challenges.”
The strategic group, facilitated by the MIA, gives industry a forum for pan-industry discussions on workforce opportunities and challenges.
A major item on the agenda is shortage of labour for the industry, which already employs some 25,000 people. MIA’s survey of members suggest an additional 2,000 workers are required in order to maintain levels of production and to capture further added-value from its products.
The reasons for the shortage are many. Goldstone points to younger people moving to the cities – “an issue faced by all rural industries”– and their changing expectations of work, an ageing workforce and the seasonal nature of the work as key factors. There is also competition from other primary sectors, such as dairy, horticulture and now forestry, for workers basically from the same pool.
“It is an industry that requires physically demanding work. With an ageing workforce, injuries and repetitive strain injuries magnify as health and safety issues,” he says.
“Many younger people do not accept or want the seasonal and physical manual labour template that their parents and grand-parents have worked under.
Seasonality is a big disincentive for many working in the sector, says Goldstone. “Because, although workers make good money during the season, they then leave and prefer to find employment with guarantee of work over the full year, to support mortgages and families.”
Some work has been done across primary sectors to balance seasonal work over the year, for example, with liaison between meat companies and seafood or horticultural employers. However, much of the work needed takes place in the summer months.
“The red meat sector has been doing very well with the workforce we have and the overall numbers of workers have remained steady over the past few decades,” says Goldstone. “While processing is becoming increasingly automated, that is freeing up labour to additional processing to add-value. However, to get that additional value out of the carcase, we need more people to join the workforce.”
New red meat career pathways
There is also a negative public perception of the sector as unattractive and low paid. The sector has been working hard to address that in a variety of ways, including a new career pathway, promoted through the Primary Industry Training Organisation (PRiTO).
“Workers start out on roughly $18 per hour, plus overtime, but when they start working up through the career pathway, upskilling with qualifications along the way, their rates improve significantly.”
Nationally-recognised New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) meat processing qualifications now run from entry Level Two, through to experienced workers at Level Three and Four where they can be earning up to $80,000 a year, depending on their job and experience. Almost 6,000 workers were doing one or more NZQA programmes last year, which Goldstone says is an indication of the commitment the industry has to training and upskilling the workforce.
In addition, PrITO Apprenticeships in Meat Processing have proven to be remarkably effective not only in upskilling, but also in retaining new workers.
“The figures are outstanding and the retention rates are very good,” says Goldstone. With 84 currently in the scheme and 114 graduates since 2016, more than 90 percent are still working in the industry.
“What’s more, we’ve found that these new, motivated and young workers, trained in the best industry practice, are pulling up expertise across the production chain.”
Also, a MIA tertiary scholarship fund, is now in its second year. Within that, MIA has encouraged a dozen under-graduates and post-graduate students to enter the sector in 2018.
“Eleven of the dozen 2017 scholars are now working in the industry, either at, or doing projects with, meat processors. Those students bring a degree of enthusiasm and new thinking and are working in a variety of areas. These include sales and marketing, one is doing a project on wastewater, another on dairy beef, and another has entered one of the processing companies as a management cadet,” says Goldstone.
The work is all about creating a permanent, highly-trained, talented and stable New Zealand workforce, he says.
Small pool of workers
“We want to be a New Zealanders-first industry. However, making us more attractive doesn’t get over the fact that we have a small pool here in New Zealand from which to draw,” says Goldstone.
The shortage of about 2,000 workers in the industry means meat processors have to either reduce production with less ‘value-add’ processing done, or else bring in workers from overseas.
“If you want a value-add export sector, then you need to have the workers that will do the value-adding,” he says.
Many processors have been bringing in short-term migrant workers, mostly from Pacifica countries, which Goldstone argues is good for New Zealand workers: “In that it allows companies to move more Kiwis up the career pathway, to upskill and earn more money.”
In addition, to produce Halal certified product – for which there is a growing demand internationally – under the New Zealand Halal regulatory framework, the industry needs to employ Muslim Halal slaughtermen. About 150 of these are recruited from overseas, mainly from Fiji and Malaysia.
“New Zealand’s Muslim population is too small and there are not the numbers in the rural regions to draw from,” explains Goldstone.
However, the sector has found Immigration NZ’s processes can be overly bureaucratic, frustrating for both the worker and the employer, and highly uncertain.
“For instance, MIA must apply annually for group visas for overseas workers under the immigration approvals process. A three-year application process would allow the workers to be assigned to a meat company, adding value to them and certainty for all,” he says.
In 2019, another major area of work for the MIA’s HR Leaders Group will be around industrial relations. The Employment Relations Amendment Act passed through the New Zealand Parliament in December. MIA had opposed a lot of sections in the Bill that will present some significant challenges for the red meat sector, says Goldstone.
“In particular, we believe the proposed Fair Pay Agreements could be a return to the 1970s style national awards system. One national agreement will not suit all companies which operate with different employment contracts, have different company cultures and quite different challenges and opportunities in their particular region or market focus,” he says.
“We will be vigilant about matters which impact on our membership, which earns round $8 billion a year for the country, employing 25,000 workers in the regions,” concludes Goldstone.
This article appeared in Food NZ magazine (February/March 2019) and is reproduced here with permission.