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The Meat Industry Association has lambasted what is understood to be the approval of 15 long-term critical worker visas for halal butchers - when 45 are "desperately" needed - saying it shows the Government is "tone deaf to the needs of business".
Muslim markets and many customers demanded meat be processed in the halal way; 49 out of 55 processing plants in New Zealand operated halal systems and relied on 250 halal butchers.
In a statement yesterday, MIA chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said the "miserly" approval knee-capped the ability of the second-largest goods export sector to fully contribute to New Zealand’s economy and capture higher value from its exports.
Halal certified products contributed about $3.7 billion of annual export earnings. The sector could typically recruit only 100 halal butchers domestically due to New Zealand’s small Muslim population and the nature of the job.
A recent national recruitment campaign resulted in 27 applications. Of those, there were 19 non-shows for interviews. Of the seven suitable candidates, only two were willing to move to anywhere in New Zealand.
The remaining five would only work in their current place of abode - Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch - and there were only two processing plants across those three centres.
Ms Karapeeva said a religious component was a fundamental part of the job because they must be a practicing Muslim "which we obviously cannot train for".
"We have no other choice but to look overseas to fill the vacancies.
“Ultimately, we want a special work visa for halal butchers. We believe this will be a simple and pragmatic solution to this unique problem," she said.
Ms Karapeeva understood the 15 workers must be guaranteed to be paid 1.5 times the median wage. "In light of our sector’s established collective agreement pay structure, any Government requirement that halal butchers are guaranteed to be paid substantially more than other workers will be unworkable."
While halal butchers were the critical shortage, other processing workers were needed in an industry which was more than 2000 workers short due to the tight domestic labour market and Covid-19 border restrictions.
Without sufficient labour, companies cannot run their processing plants at full capacity and that could have a flow-on impact for animal welfare, farmer wellbeing and the regional economy.
Companies might be forced to reduce value-add processing by either sending more parts of the carcass for rendering into lower value meat and bone meal or freezing carcasses rather than further processing into value add chilled and bone-less cuts. That downgraded a lamb carcass by around $15 each, which impacted the overall export value and the return to farmers.
“We need the Government to understand our specific needs and work with us on practical and sustainable solutions," she said.
Earlier this week, DairyNZ said it was continuing to push for another 1500 dairy international workers to be let into the country for the 2022 season to help alleviate "crippling" staff shortages that were having a serious impact on farmer wellbeing.
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor has been approached for comment.