Meat industry now short 10,000 workers

Shan Goodwin
By Shan Goodwin
May 10 2022 - 10:00pm
Get used to empty beef shelves, processors warn

EMPTY red meat cabinets in supermarkets and rationing of products like mince look set to become the 'new norm' in Australia, post farmgate red meat supply chain businesses have warned.

And farmers should brace for plummeting livestock prices as the herd grows but the country's capacity to process numbers shrink, they say.

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The labour shortage in the meat industry has reached drastic levels and there is no plausible solution. From processing to transport, wholesaling and independent butcher retailing, it is now 10,000 people short.

The industry's peak representative body, the Australian Meat Industry Council, says the sector is effectively being told by all sides of politics to get used to it.

"People have an horrendously short memory about what a lack of workforce in the red meat supply chain looks like," an angry AMIC chief executive officer Patrick Hutchinson said this week.

In January, when the Omicron wave stripped abattoir workforces back by as much as 70 per cent in some plants, shortages of fresh meat were widespread and major supermarkets put per-customer limits on purchases.

"It looks like empty supermarket shelves," Mr Hutchinson said.

"It looks like producers not getting a fair price for their livestock.

"It looks like a massive economic blow to regional areas.

"This is what we are being told we have to get used to."

The sector's call for a meat industry specific visa program has not gained traction. What they want is not just a visa but a program that would encourage, engage and retain workers from both a domestic and international workforce pool.

Lowering the required level of English and a built-in opportunity for permanent residency are two areas where changes could be made that would immediately start filling spots, Mr Hutchinson said.

"We are not asking for visa workers as a proxy for locals because locals are more expensive," he said.

"It costs an abattoir 15 to 20pc more annually for an overseas worker than a local worker."

The industry was now at the point of desperation.

"We are staring down the barrel of certain facilities having to shut for days, weeks," Mr Hutchinson said.

"We know the labour shortage is happening in every sector, everywhere in the country but this is food on the tables of Australians we are talking about.

"It's not widgets.

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"It warrants the government finding a solution, immediately."

Asked if the answer was higher pay for meatworker jobs , Mr Hutchinson said most processors currently pay well above award wages.

The price pressures at the moment on processors, which include record livestock prices, mean they have been in negative margin territory for the best part of two years.

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Shan Goodwin

Shan Goodwin

National Agriculture Writer - Beef

Shan Goodwin steers ACM’s national coverage of the beef industry. Shan has worked as a journalist for 30 years, the majority of that with agricultural publications. She spent many years as The Land’s North Coast reporter and has visited beef properties and stations throughout the country and overseas. She treats all breeds equally.

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