NZ dairy labour shortage spurs change to class exception scheme

The sector is short an estimated 4,000-6,000 workers
calendar icon 25 January 2022
clock icon 3 minute read

According to Dairy New Zealand, applications are now open for dairy farmers to recruit much-needed international workers, including farm assistants and herd managers, under changes to a class exception scheme.

This follows months of DairyNZ advocacy requesting changes to the 2021 class border exception process which resulted in the Government announcing in December that more dairy farm assistants would be allowed across the border to meet strong demand on farms.

In June 2021, the Government provided provisional approval for 200 international dairy workers to apply to enter New Zealand under a class exception scheme. This included a limit of 50 farm assistants, with the remaining positions to be filled by herd manager and assistant managers.

“We know many farmers are having difficulty finding Kiwis to fill dairy positions, and the demand for farm assistants is particularly strong,” said DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle.

"We have been pushing hard for the Government to recognise the need for changes to the quota to allow for greater flexibility and more farm assistants to enter New Zealand," he said.

The Government said in December it will remove restrictions on the number of farm assistants that are part of the quota of 200 workers, and allow the quota to be made up of any mix of farm assistants, herd managers and assistant managers.

While the changes are positive, Mackle said DairyNZ is continuing to strongly advocate for another 1500 international dairy workers to be allowed into the country this year to help fill a critical shortage of dairy staff – estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000 workers.

“Border closures and an unemployment rate at 3.4 percent are creating ongoing stress for dairy farmers," said Mackie. “Without the right number of people on farm, it puts animal welfare at risk, constrains the sector’s ability to make environmental progress, and places a greater burden on increasingly stretched teams, with staff often having to work extraordinary hours.

“While we acknowledge the situation is uncertain, there is no point having the class exception if people can’t actually then get into the country due to border restrictions," he added. “We have put a number of suggestions to Government for how we could manage the health risk and the labour needs. We are exploring on-farm isolation with MPI as an option. Farms are already away from communities, and farmers are used to maintaining good hygiene standards.”

DairyNZ, Federated Farmers and Dairy Women’s Network also made a request in November 2021 for a further 1,500 international workers to be allowed to enter New Zealand in 2022. Mackle says that the workforce shortage is a critical issue for the dairy sector.

Alongside work to recruit international workers, DairyNZ has a range of initiatives underway to attract Kiwis into dairy, including GoDairy. A new campaign will also soon be launched to give Kiwis a better understanding of what it means to be a dairy farmer.

DairyNZ is also leading the development of a Dairy Workforce Resilience Plan which will involve farmers, dairy companies, sector groups and the Government in creating an evidence-based roadmap to put the sector on a sustainable path to recruit and retain people.

Salaries for people working on dairy farms have increased significantly over the past two years, and many roles offer accommodation on site.

“There are many different job opportunities in dairy and it can offer a rewarding career path," Mackle concluded. 

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