Is the Shearing Industry Facing a Massive Crisis?

By Hari Yellina
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As the industry hits the crisis point, the federal government is now under mounting pressure to fix Australia’s shearing problem. Key participants are concerned, claiming that if the wool backlog isn’t cleared quickly, a catastrophic animal welfare problem could occur. The federal government may help facilitate the entry of additional skilled shearers from the United Kingdom, according to one option floated in recent weeks. Jo Hall, CEO of WoolProducers Australia, believes the industry is on the verge of a serious disaster. “This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction; the industry has been clamouring for this for years,” Ms Hall explained.

“The pandemic has simply served to emphasise the problem. Things are catastrophic, as far as finding a pool of skilled wool harvesting workers is concerned.” Ms Hall told AWI in 2016 that WoolProducers Australia had advised them to concentrate on a retention strategy since the numbers were dwindling. AWI had a terrific shearer training initiative, she noted, but shearer attraction and retention was a huge challenge. “Nothing, whether it’s training or access to overseas labour pools, will make shearers materialise overnight, and that’s exactly what we need right now,” she added. “At best, we’re focusing on medium-term objectives.”

According to SCAA secretary Jason Letchford, Australia has a large quantity of sheep that need to be sheared right away. “There are so many stories now that people are just going to abandon decades of wool-growing in their family and shift to non-wool-growing livestock,” Mr Letchford added. He said anyone could now travel to Australia, but getting a visa to work as a shearer in Australia has its own set of problems. Mr Letchford stated, “SCAA is not aware of a visa that is readily available to import skilled personnel from other countries, including the UK.” “Plus, importing shearers from the United Kingdom is not an industry line that would open up.”

Mr Letchford believes that employment terms for Pacific Island workers under the Pacific Australian Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, which is expected to be operational soon, will have the potential to transform the industry. “Instead of recruiting a small number of British backpackers under the age of 30 who can shear a few of crossbreds and alleviate our shearing dilemma,” he added, “the PALM scheme has the potential to be a wholesale answer.” It’s a step-by-step process that can be duplicated. “We can go on with it if we can teach these people legally and with the blessing of the unions and all parties involved.” Anything less is like putting chewing gum in a leaking boat’s hole.

Due to the fact that the results of last year’s census will not be released until later this year, the most recent figures from 2016 reveal that there were only 2842 shearers in Australia. These figures revealed that the shearing business has lost 32 percent of its workers in the ten years since the 2006 census. Unfortunately, no international labour plans were suitable for the shearing profession, according to Ms Hall. “There is scope for wool handlers,” Ms Hall added, “but there is nothing truly sufficient for shearers given the pastoral care requirements.”

“What we’d want to see is a fit-for-purpose visa for wool harvesters, whether they’re shearers or wool handlers.”

WoolProducers Australia has been petitioning the federal Agricultural Minister and all state agricultural ministers to provide easy passage for wool harvesting teams both domestically and internationally, according to Ms Hall, since the start of the pandemic. The Australian government recognised that worker availability had been a continuing problem for the agriculture sector, especially the wool industry, throughout the COVID-19 epidemic, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. In December last year, the Australian Government reopened the international border for fully vaccinated eligible visa holders, allowing eligible visa holders, including skilled visa subclasses used by the wool industry to bring in shearers, to enter Australia without requiring an exemption, according to the spokesperson.

Shearers were designated as a crucial skill that the Australian Border Force Commissioner evaluated in granting individual exemptions from Australia’s travel restrictions during the height of the pandemic and accompanying border restrictions. They also claimed that temporary visa holders already in Australia would be able to extend their visas if they wanted to stay and work in agriculture.


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