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Conflict over shearer shortage

SRS Genetics chairman Norm Smith says plain-bodied, moderate-sized sheep offer a “genetic solution” to the shearing crisis. Photo by AWI

The wool industry has appealed for Pacific Island workers to be used to fill a workforce shortage of 500 shearers and 500 shed hands.

In response, the Australian Workers’ Union has accused the wool industry of looking for a way to “import cheap labour” and create a “steady pipeline of easily exploitable workers”.

AWU national secretary Dan Walton said the union was not convinced there was a genuine worker shortage.

“Despite the ongoing claims by the Shearing Contractors’ Association of Australia and some wool growers of a labour shortage, the fact is that the Australian flock has been shorn year after year,” Mr Walton said.

While the AWU debates if the shearer shortage is real, groups such as SRS Genetics have been in crisis meetings over the national shearer shortage.

Left with limited workers, SRS Genetics chairman Norm Smith said the sheep would have to change.

“Shearing is the hardest manual job left in Australia and I take my hat off to any shearer — it’s not something on young people’s radar any more,” Mr Smith said.

“As an industry we are slow to move ... the facilities and sheep type should have changed by now.”

Easy-shearing sheep have traits including soft rolling skins, plainer body, moderate frame and docility.

These offer a “genetic solution” to the shearer shortage, according to SRS Genetics.

Central western NSW shearing contractor Rod Mackander said his shearing crew would make from $700 to $1000 more per day shearing SRS sheep.

“The result is they (workers) want to keep coming back,” Mr Mackander said.

“The shearers have better tallies, and the shearing is easier because the plain bodies allow for cleaner blows.”

Mr Mackander also encouraged farmers to keep their sheep below 60kg — young shearers struggle to shear sheep over 80kg and anything over 100kg can easily injure a shearer.

“Farmers used to say we don’t breed sheep for the shearers but these days they need to start breeding them for the shearers if they want them shorn,” he said.

“Farmers need to be versatile in their shearing dates, as December to May is chaotic and impossible to get workers.”

Wool grower and agribusiness consultant Rodney Lush said the shearer shortage needed to be addressed through the ability to source skilled overseas shed staff to support local staff at peak times, easy-shearing sheep and well-maintained facilities.

Wool grower and shearer Shane Axford said the biggest reason for the shearer shortage was the continuity of work and having enough sheep in one area.

“There are now no resident shearers in Hughenden, Julia Creek, Richmond or Muttaburra where in Muttaburra alone in 1998 there were 14 teams,” Mr Axford said.

He suggested a collaborative effort where landholders agreed to use one contractor in a region to give continuity of work close to their home base.

Mr Axford said an increase in travel rates, improved facilities and internet access were also required to attract young workers and retain them.