THE first question in our Ask Canberra series comes from livestock producer Steve Kolb in Pingelly Western Australia.
Steve wants to know whether our meat processing workforce can be bolstered to increase flexibility and speed up operations during tough times like droughts to increase animal welfare outcomes and safeguard economic returns.
He says animals must be processed as quickly as possible, rather than have them standing around losing condition, as a key strategy in dealing with droughts.
Steve says meatworks could increase production dramatically, by adding another work shift on a seasonal basis - but they can’t obtain the necessary labour force.
This is a particular problem in WA, nearly every year from October to March, he says.
“If our processing works could use imported crews of workers, like the fruit industry now does to some extent, it would be a win for farmers, a win for livestock and a win in helping to defeat our endless problems with droughts,” he said.
“People like Fletcher (International Exports) have been pushing for this for a long time.
“What say our politicians address this?”
West Australian Liberal Senator and experienced veterinarian Chris Back agreed with Steve’s view.
He said having the capacity to speed up slaughter processes for sheep and cattle and other livestock during times of drought would generate positive animal welfare outcomes.
“It would be absolutely ideal, if we could do it,” he said.
Senator Back said he’s recently held conversations with meatworks in WA and NSW to discuss their various issues and the number one constraint to increased processing capacity is workforce availability.
He said the Goulburn meatworks in NSW recently advertised to hire 50 staff in a bid to add a fourth shift to its operations – but found virtually no suitable applicants.
A similar story is being told by other operators in WA looking to expand meatworks operations and bolster their workforce flexibility to increase processing capacity.
Senator Back said the biggest issue is being able to find and attract trained, qualified staff.
He said using seasonal fruit picking workers may not be a workable option because they require far less skill and minimal training, which makes that workforce highly mobile.
But Steve said most workers on a meat chain have nothing to do with animal welfare and work post-slaughter, so unskilled workers could still be an option.
He said backpackers and similar workers are often used in WA, to try and make up shortfalls.
Animal Health Australia CEO Dr Michael Bond said at first glance, Steve’s call to increase the workforce flexibility at meatworks to benefit animals and producers was a “sensible suggestion”.
Dr Bond said in reality, this is a perennial problem and not just applicable to WA but also many northern abattoirs that have been forced to close down over the years due to workforce constraints and economic factors.
“These businesses need to maintain a skilled workforce to survive and remain viable but are restricted because they can only provide seasonal employment for five or six months a year,” he said.
“If you live near Dubbo for example, where’s the incentive to move north and work in an abattoir somewhere like Katherine or Darwin or Derby?”
Dr Bond agreed with Senator Back’s view about the higher skill demand needed to ensure correct animal handling standards and slaughter chain processes are maintained in abattoirs, compared to the skills needed for fruit picking.
But he said one solution was to employ skilled foreign workers using 457 visas, which he understood was one of the proposals accompanying AACo’s plans to open its new cattle processing abattoir near Darwin.
Dr Bond said while workforce flexibility issues could be overcome by using seasonal workers, issues with transportation, moving livestock in and out of abattoirs, and transporting end product to market, would still remain.
“Improving the flexibility of the meat processing workforce is a valid part of the strategy for improving animal welfare during tough seasons - but you would also need to consider other economic realities,” he said.
Senator Back said when meatworks closed down in northern Australia in the 1980’s it wasn’t due to the increase in live exports, as some critics of the trade have claimed.
He said the live export market segment of the Australian livestock industry started ramping up in the years after many meatworks closed, as the trade increased its viability.
Senator Back said the number one reason those abattoirs closed was “seasonality” and restricted access to skilled professional workers – an issue that remains problematic today.
He said if 457 visas and other options were explored to increase workforce flexibility, speed up processing times and therefore improve animal welfare, “it would be better than the crisis we’re about to face”.
With current sheep and cattle prices depressed due to sudden loss of access to live export markets, some producers are paying more for the cost of mustering and transport than what they were returning at market, he said.
They are effectively subsidising animal welfare, to save them from starvation due to lack of feed and wild dog attacks.
Senator Back said if the Australian Meat Workers Union opposed using 457 visas and foreign workers, they could also help locate the workers needed to fill long-running job vacancies and demand in Australian meatworks.