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About a third of the country’s 250 halal processing workers would have to leave New Zealand next year due to the Government’s one-year stand-down policy, MIA chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said in statement.
The loss of those people, along with ‘‘hundreds of other essential meat workers’’, could result in reduced production and job losses in New Zealand’s largest manufacturing industry, Ms Karapeeva said.
"Most of the 42 halal processing plants in New Zealand now operate between 10-12 months per year. A shortage of skilled halal processing people could result in production at many plants being limited to six months in the year, which would mean processing of livestock for farmers is severely disrupted and employees might be let go.
"Under the Government’s one-year stand-down policy, which applies to low-skilled workers, some 80 of these essential halal processing people, and at least 260 other essential meat workers currently working in New Zealand, will be forced to leave,’’ she said.
When asked for a response to the MIA’s concerns, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment acting immigration policy manager Andrew Craig said higher-skilled workers, who would earn more than the median wage, were not subject to the stand-down period in which they must leave after three years.
The ministry was working with the sector on options to provide the earnings certainty that would allow workers earning over that level to remain, Mr Craig said.
The Government continued to monitor and review immigration settings and actively worked with sectors, including primary industries and the MIA, to fill gaps in the workforce with skills training and employment opportunities for New Zealanders first and, where necessary and in line with Covid-19 border restrictions, allow limited exceptions that met high thresholds for eligibility, he said.
Exports of halal meat from New Zealand began in the 1970s, when the industry developed halal systems to enable export to Middle East halal markets.
More than 45% of New Zealand’s total red meat exports are now halal certified.
Ms Karapeeva said while the sector’s preference was always to employ New Zealanders from local communities and it was working hard to attract people who had lost their jobs due to Covid-19, there was a high need for certified practising Muslim processing workers and they were highly specialised roles.
"While we recruit as many as we can domestically, it significantly falls short of our need. That means we have no option but to look to migrants to fill some 150 roles each year."
Since 2002, the industry has been granted an annual approval in principle to bring in about 145 halal processing people from overseas to fill the sustained shortfall.
"We are actively working on a workforce development strategy to widen the training pipeline in New Zealand, but this relies on certainty of production and our existing halal workforce is a critical aspect of this," Ms Karapeeva said.
"The current immigration policy settings would have significant adverse consequences for our industry and mean we would not be able to operate at optimum capacity or deliver the full economic and social benefits to the country during the recovery."
The meat processing and exporting sector and sheep and beef farmers collectively generate $12 billion in income per year for the country. The sector is also responsible for $4.6 billion in household income and represents about a fifth of New Zealand’s productive sector.
"We have tried to engage constructively with officials. However, progress has been slow and the industry is running out of time," Ms Karapeeva said.
"There is a real risk these decisions could cause disruptions to food production, which could impact the entire workforce and New Zealand’s market access credentials for halal products."