Dairy farms turn to migrants

Last updated 05:00 04/01/2013

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The stereotype of a Pakeha farmer may soon be on the way out, as dairy operators fill their ranks with foreign employees to make up for the low level of interest in milk production jobs shown by Kiwi jobseekers.

Agri-lobby Federated Farmers estimates that about a fifth of all dairy workers hail from overseas.

That means the person responsible for getting a pint of milk out of a cow and on your breakfast table is likely to hail from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, or even as far afield as Colombia.

And it is an arrangement that suits many in the industry.

Willy Leferink, the chairman of Federated Farmer's Dairy Industry Group, said New Zealand - much like many other developed countries - was in the grips of a structural shift whereby young people were more likely to take up studies in more glamorous fields than farming despite its importance to the economy.

He said that has been exacerbated by the rapid growth of the dairy industry in New Zealand, but an overall lack of interest in working long days in rural conditions was also an issue.

"We need foreign workers because without them we would be devastated," Leferink said.

The upside for farmers is that they gain staff with skills, as the New Zealand Immigration Service only issues visas to people with appropriate agri qualifications.

They're also getting the benefit of experience, with many foreign workers, particularly from the Philippines, having worked in foreign markets.

A South Waikato farmer, who asked not to be named, said staff with Saudi experience were particularly sought after as they were familiar with working on huge operations using modern machinery and world-class standards.

He said efforts by Work and Income to place unemployed people with farmers seldom yielded results due to a lack of dairy-specific skills, while foreigners came trained and enthusiastic.

Bruce Porteous, who works for farm recruitment firm Immigration Placements, said New Zealand was an appealing place to work for foreigners as the immigration laws paved a way for permanent resident.

Data from Statistics New Zealand backs this. In the year ended November 2012, almost 200 people from the Philippines became permanent residents, up 8.7 per cent on the same period a year ago. Similar net immigration gains were seen from Argentina and the Czech Republic.

Additionally, there was the pull of "earning $14 per hour as opposed to $14 per day", he said.

Leferink said he'd like to see more done at a school level to steer young people towards careers in the dairy industry.

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- BusinessDay.co.nz

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