This season, numerous major beef processors in Australia are hiring workers from Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, marking the first time they have recruited overseas labourers. This move comes as the industry grapples with a significant shortage of workers and looks for viable solutions.
Despite the absence of an official labor access agreement between governments, many industry experts view Indonesia as a substantial and capable source of offshore labor.
According to a leading export processor who spoke to Beef Central, the number of recruits from new sources is currently small in comparison to the overall size of the labor shortage in the processing industry. However, they noted that it’s a step in the right direction. “It’s just a drop in the ocean,” they said, “but it’s a start.”
Today’s weekly kill report suggests that the beef industry may reach a natural processing limit of approximately 115,000-120,000 head per week this year, based solely on the availability of labor. This means that the industry may not be able to process more than this amount per week due to a shortage of workers.
While recruitment from Pacific nations like Samoa and the Solomon Islands continues to underpin the Pacific Labor Scheme, other Asian nations are coming into focus.
The Philippines is a population of 114 million people, almost all English-speaking. Indonesia is more than almost twice that size at 273 million, but has a much smaller proportion of fluent English speakers. But importantly, it is seen as having people with experience in cattle husbandry and processing, being beef consumers.
Papua New Guinea has a much smaller population, and little animal processing experience.
One large multi-site processor said there had no real progress in overseas labor access, but his company was currently inducting a team of 15 from the Philippines for the first time.
“The Philippines is attractive, because there is not the same language issues,” he said. “They all speak good English, which is part of the visa entry requirement.”
A different significant processor is in talks to bring in a team of workers from Papua New Guinea, although this country is not part of the PALM Pacific labor scheme. Instead, the workers will be recruited under separate working visas, but they must meet specific English language proficiency requirements.
The processor suspected that the recent changes were partly due to the relaxed COVID restrictions and border openings. The number of Chinese temporary laborers in Australian processing had significantly decreased due to COVID but were now expected to rise again as borders reopened.
Regarding Indonesia, the processor noted that it was an obvious choice, but after conducting research, the company found it to be a challenging option.
Indonesia does not sit under the current PALM Pacific Labor scheme, but would have to come under one of the other available labor schemes, Beef Central was told.
“Special dispensation is needed from both the Indonesian and Australian governments on an individual by individual basis, making it nigh-on impossible under current conditions,” the processor said.
Adding to the challenges, processors were increasingly having to invest in accommodation ‘villages’ to house imported labor – especially in more remote regional plants.
“All this adds extra cost, while not really adding to the bottom line,” he said.
Indonesia market expert Troy Setter from Consolidated Pastoral Co said at this point, a labor agreement with Indonesia had not yet really come through as industry had earlier hoped.
“But dialogue continues between Indonesian and Australian Governments, and we remain optimistic,” Mr. Setter said.
“It’s a very large population, and as red meat eaters, there’s a lot of skilled and semi-skilled labor in Indonesia in meat processing, livestock handling and lot feeding that would be a natural fit for Australia.”
There is an abundant source of Indonesian labor with ag skills who would like to come to Australia, and would fit well with our regional ag businesses and communities,” he said.
“But its currently very difficult to bring in workers from southeast Asia, unfortunately.”
Mr. Setter said the same as with young Australians, if they did not speak and understand English or did not understand the work practices, or needed workforce training, it was the responsibility of each employer bringing people into their team to ensure they were trained and safe.
“It’s the responsibility of the employer to solve that – not the Australian government,” he said.
Mr. Setter said an Indonesian work agreement was one of the industry’s priorities for 2023.
“It should be a strong focus – Indonesia is our closest neighbor – and we share a lot of trade and geopolitical alliances. It makes sense to work together to strengthen our ties and relationships to improve the opportunities for both countries.”
“Industry is working closely with Ag minister Murray Watt through the labor taskforce, that includes a wide cross section from the NFF, unions and employers. The new government is working to get something over the line, which the industry would applaud,” he said.
source credit: Beef Central