Parliament's Primary Production Committee on the video link to Sirma Karapeeva yesterday

The New Zealand Meat Industry is so short of workers it is likely to have to cut production this coming season.

Meat is the country’s second-biggest export, worth approximately $8.2 billion in exports a year.

In a direct challenge to the Government’s closed-door immigration policy, the industry’s association told a Select Committee yesterday that it urgently needed more workers.

It particularly wants to recruit Muslim Halal butchers from overseas.

But current immigration settings do not permit that, and one Minister told POLITIK there was little sympathy for the industry’s protests because it had not tried hard enough to recruit New Zealand Muslims.

But Meat Industry Association Chief Executive Sirma Karapeeva told Parliament’s Primary Production Committee by video link that not only could they not get new butchers, but those here currently faced the prospect of having to go home because their visas were about to run out.

In essence, the difference between halal meat and other meat produced in New Zealand is that it is blessed by a practising Muslim butcher as the animal is  slaughtered.

There are also requirements relating to how the knife must cut its throat.

Already one poultry processor has last month had to cease producing Halal chicken because of a shortage of Halal workers.

The Business Manager of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, Maher Fawzi, posted a notice on the Federation’s Facebook page on June 3 that “we have been informed by Turks Poultry that in view of insufficient Halal Slaughter men employed at Turks, the poultry production with effect from today will be declared as Non-Halal until further notice.”

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Fawzi said that Turks had been strictly following the Federation’s Halal guidelines.

Karapeeva warned that what has happened at Turks could happen right across the industry. But virtually every carcase processed in New Zealand is halal. So no halal butchers would have huge implications.

“The industry depends on halal processing of virtually every single animal to meet consumer requirements around the world,” she said.

“To be able to do halal processing, the industry needs around two hundred and fifty halal butchers.

“One hundred of those are New Zealanders, and we source them from New Zealand’s very small Muslim population.

“We advertise extensively and promote the opportunities through the Muslim communities, through the mosques, through halal certifiers in any other community group that we can reach to showcase the opportunities and provide those that might be interested with the information of how they might be able to join the industry.

“The problem for us is that the Muslim community is very small, predominantly concentrated in Auckland and to a certain extent in Hamilton.

“And few people are attracted to the job of being a butcher and having to move into rural communities where perhaps the social networks and their support systems might not be available.“

The industry is currently short of 50 butchers.

“The season starts in September or October. And if we lose any more Halal workers, then things will become very critical.

And that is now a real risk because not only can the industry not recruit butchers, many of those that are here will have to go home before the end of 2022.

In a year, in fact, in about 12 months, 87 of the migrant workers that are here on extended visas will have to leave New Zealand.

“This is because the stand-down period will kick in, and they will not be enabled to stay in New Zealand at that point.

“The reality is that we suddenly lose about half of the Halal butchers in the country. The remaining 11 migrant workers will need to leave before the end of 2022.

“This not only risks over three-point three dollars billion of halal-certified exports but in fact has the potential to lower the overall value of the red meat export earnings.”

However, the shortage of Halal workers is part of a wider problem facing the meat industry.

It is having trouble getting workers for our meat processing plants generally.

The meat industry is not on its own.

The ANZ Bank yesterday forecast that unemployment (4.1% for the first quarter this year) would reach three per cent by 2023, a figure that it hasn’t got near since 2007-08.

ANZ  economists Finn Robinson and Sharron Zollner said that currently, job vacancies were “way above” pre-Covid levels and were now tracking at previously never-before-seen levels.

“Employers appear increasingly willing to take a punt on anyone they can get, and the rise in monthly filled jobs suggests employment growth will be higher than we previously thought,” they said.

“That brings the unemployment rate back to pre-Covid levels, and to a level that we would consider to be consistent with a labour market that’s at full employment.”

Those figures compare with Treasury’s Covid scenarios from April last year, which forecast employment at 8.5 per cent this year (in fact, 4.7 per cent) and a forecast of five per cent for 2023.

As if that is not a big enough challenge for one of our biggest industries which employs 25,000 workers across the country, Karapeeva said there were now cultural factors that were hindering the recruitment of workers.

“What would be difficult for us to employ is young 16, 17-year-olds straight out of school,” she said.

“It is a very challenging job, not only physically, but also it is confronting dealing in that sort of environment where you are disassembling a living animal.

“It takes a level of resilience and maturity.”

Karapeeva said the labour shortages in the industry were across the board beyond just Halal butchers.

“We estimate the plants will be running with a shortage of over two thousand workers in the approaching season, which is due to kick off in September, October time,” she said.

What the labour shortages mean for us is that plants will not be able to run at capacity, and this will most likely mean that it’ll take longer to process stock, which may cause some distress to farmers as well as some animal welfare issues.

“In addition, carcasses will not be able to be processed to their full value, or certain co-products will not be saved and will need to be sent down for lower render rendering products.

“Ultimately, the labour shortages have a direct impact on the export revenue and on return to farmers, and of course, they are flow-on implications in terms of spending in the communities and ensuring that our rural communities continue to be thriving and healthy in terms of attracting workers, meeting the industry needs.

“It’s challenging because there is a longstanding negative perception about work in the industry.”

She said the industry was running a targeted media campaign to address those negative perceptions as well as being about to launch a labour recruitment campaign.

And she made a direct plea to the Committee.

“If the Primary Production Select Committee can make only one recommendation as part of this inquiry to help the meat industry, we would ask this to be to urgently resolve the migrant halal butcher issue,” she said.

“And more specifically, we ask that you put forward a strong recommendation for the creation of a special immigration visa for halal butchers as quickly as possible to head off the crisis we will face in a matter of months.”