© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

'Critical' labour shortages make farmers nervous about immigration cuts

Federated Farmers Mid Canterbury Chairman Michael Salvesen said Canterbury is already in a localised skill shortage.   Laura Cunningham

Canterbury farmers are worried proposed immigration cuts will leave them unable to staff their operations.

It is estimated there are about 3800 migrant workers on New Zealand dairy farms.

Labour plans to cut immigration by between 20,000 and 30,000 migrants a year.

Federated Farmers Mid Canterbury Chairman Michael Salvesen said migrant workers were important to all sectors of farming, specifically Canterbury dairy farms, where he called the current labour shortages "critical".

He said there were simply not enough New Zealanders to do the jobs.

"Particularly in Canterbury, rural unemployment is actually really low, so we need outside people."

Salvesen said in the regions that did have enough New Zealanders, many did not want to work on farms.

He said rural communities benefited from migrant workers bringing their families to New Zealand, which brought diversification to the region.

"There’s kids from all over the world in Ashburton schools. A lot of these people have really been adding to the whole community."

Watch or read more from Michael Salvesen here:

Filipino Dairy Farm Workers Association chairman Earl Magtibay called the planned immigration cuts "painful and sad" for the Filipino community.

"We have proven time and time again that Filipino dairy workers have been an essential part in the New Zealand dairy industry."

He wanted migrant farm workers to be considered as mid-skilled workers rather than lower-skilled.

Immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway said Labour’s immigration policy would ease the pressure of record population growth.

Last year 130,000 migrants arrived in New Zealand.

Lees-Galloway said immigration put too much pressure on housing, health, education and transport.

He said while regions were "crying out" for more workers, Auckland was struggling.

He said Labour would continue to help regional businesses find overseas workers where there was genuine need.

This was so "businesses who genuinely can’t find a New Zealander can hire from overseas, but the system isn’t abused".

National immigration spokesman Simon Bridges said while all parties in Government wanted to decrease immigration, they faced the reality of not enough regional skilled workers.

He said the Government may need to change its cutbacks and create special visas to ensure industries, including farming, could function. 

"I certainly hope that is the case because every day I am approached by businesses and sectors who need more workers and cannot find enough domestically," Bridges said.

Dairy NZ policy and advocacy general manager Carol Barnao said migrant workers "allows dairy to have the stable and skilled workforce it needs to be productive".

Under Labour, she expected a stricter recruitment process. 

Barnao said farmers might now to prove they attempted to recruit New Zealanders before hiring migrants.

She said it was uncertain how the cuts would play out, but if farmers with genuine need struggled to recruit migrants, productivity and health and safety of employees would be risked.

"Other employees [would] need to work longer hours and could struggle to get the jobs needed to be done on-farm which would have implications for the animals."