27 January 2021

‘Farmers are not listening’: Disgusted shearers walk from industry

| John Thistleton
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Shearers working with sheep in shearing shed.

Conditions in many shearing sheds have not improved since this photograph was taken several years ago. Photo: Ray Sherman.

Dangerous working conditions, poor pay and old, dirty living quarters are causing shearers to leave the wool industry. Farmers have ignored the problems and now they face a crisis. Sheep are dying from fly strike, while shed hands, shearers and their contractors are disgusted.

Those workers on the frontline say they camp out in filthy, broken down shacks, sleep on old mattresses and earn little return for backbreaking work in old, noisy shearing sheds with dangerous equipment.

Consequently, NSW has such a dire shortage of shearers that an animal welfare problem threatens to break out in the next peak November-December shearing season.

Andy Duggan, a contractor who provides shearing teams to farmers in central and southern NSW, is warning the breaking of the drought coupled with COVID-19 has accelerated problems.

Seven million sheep are now coming to the eastern states from drought-stricken areas in Western Australia, which will make conditions much worse. Farmers are already falling behind shearing, and sheep are becoming fly-blown – infected with maggots – because they have not been crutched or shorn.

A shearer since he was 17, and a contractor for 30 years, Andy’s Christmas was his worst ever because of being unable to meet farmers’ urgent call for shearers. Farmers have been on the phone on the brink of tears.

But Andy says they have themselves to blame. He has seen appalling living conditions for his team on one farm with a $50 million turnover.

“The industry is not talking about the issue,” he says. “Farmers have to be educated, and they need to listen. They have had three years of drought, and now they have had their biggest [most successful] year. As soon as they are cashed up, they will be buying sheep. Who is going to shear them?”

Andy has lifted his pay rates by 13 per cent, from $3.25 per sheep to $3.70 a head to attract shearers. He expects pay rates will continue rising, but it may not be enough.

“I’ve shorn for 25 years,” he says. “We [contractors] do all the hard graft. We teach the young fellas how to shear, and I do everything by the book, but the cash economy is against us. Farmers offer them [shearers] cash and we lose them after doing all the hard yards.”

The crisis has been brewing long before COVID-19 stopped the influx of New Zealand shearers into Australia. Andy’s team shore 20,000 sheep just last week, but he says it was a waste of time looking for extra shearers “because they are not there”.

Region Media contacted NSW Farmers twice looking for the farmers’ side of the story, but has not had a response.

Andy says farmers who have updated their shearer conditions are the exception.

Shearing Contractors’ Association of Australia spokesman Jason Letchford says during the past decade the number of shearers has fallen by more than 30 per cent. Young people are leaving for mining, construction and other occupations.

“If [farmers] are still asking questions using the word minimum for rates of pay or working conditions, they are missing the point,” he says. “The question farmers need to ask is, ‘How good do I need to make my work environment to attract shearers here?’ Because money is only going to be part of it.

“People are looking at how fast their broadband is for a shed, not, ‘Do I need a flushing toilet?’ I am still getting flushing toilet questions, and even ones such as, ‘Do we actually need a toilet?’

“Or, ‘Do I need running water?’ Or during COVID-19, ‘Is a basin with hand sanitiser OK?’

“One hundred per cent of our shed staff are females, and 97 per cent of our shearers are male. But in some cases, they [farmers] are still expecting ladies to go and pee behind a tree because they are only there for two or three days and they cannot be bothered to hire a portable toilet.

“Why wouldn’t you work at IGA, or as a forklift driver, or packing shelves, or going home everyday to Foxtel and seeing your wife and kids and seeing them play sport or playing sport yourself?”

Farmers need safer working sheds, with fully guarded machinery, otherwise contractors will not bring their teams to the property.

“Farmers who don’t upgrade will fall to the back of the queue,” says Jason. “Farmers who have invested in good conditions will be rewarded. This is our year to raise standards through not operating in workplaces where there are sub-standard, deafening conditions.”

Original Article published by John Thistleton on The RiotACT.

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I worked in the industry for 18 years.
2 years ago I had an accident in a shearing shed due to poor conditions and if that farmer had listened to previous complaints I would still be capable of doing the job.
I will never be the same because of his arrogance and I pray that something is done about it across the board.

Reese Kelly

Spot on I’m a Woolclasser working in the outback of Auatralia … happy to have my say on this matter also …lots of issues going on making it harder to stay in a job I’m so passionate about

Being a small farmer & shearer , boilermaker by trade comparing them 2gether the shearing industry is way behind. A few cockies I still work for think upgrading is a joke but mention they can do it themselves they get their shackles up. Doesn’t matter how you put it across to them it’s water off a ducks back.

I have 3 sons that shear and the conditions of the work places are shocking and conditions of the sheep in some cases. Some farmers really don’t care about the back breaking job this really is and need to start thinking about how they might like to be treated if they are doing this job. It doesn’t take much to organize these things to have better amenities. Two of my sons gave it up because of some of these problems and due to farmers not having the sheep in pens and then the sheep haven’t emptied out and then so heavy to move when shearing, please farmers listen, I do admire farmers as my Great grandparents where farmers and I loved watching the shearers shear.

Kathy Wright1:58 pm 31 Jan 21

Everything he has written is true, I had a stand up argument with a teacher a few years ago who was telling everybody how great it was they had females working in their shed. I knew they didn’t have a toilet there and I asked her where the females went to relieve themselves. Silence for a minute and she said in the bushes. I then asked her as a teacher would she be happy with her work place if she had to do the same. She then said it was only for a few weeks and I pointed out I her that if every farmer thought like her there there would not be a toilet at any shed. We have been in the industry for many years, sometimes the toilets are soo dirty it is cleaner to go in the bushes! Tables covered with mice dropping where everyone is expected to eat, old chairs that are dangerous to sit on. Not everyone is like that but too many are. Because the unions are not involved any more there is no one to check up on conditions and make sure things are done properly and I am afraid farmers have taken advantage of that. My husband has been a shearer, contractor and wool classer for 56 years and at the age of 76 still does wool classing so he has seen a lot in the industry.

Rod Faithfull9:47 am 31 Jan 21

Fair enough. I’m old enough to have worked in sheds back in the 70s. That’s 50 years ago and back then conditions were very ordinary. Work place health and safety was non existent. Toilets of any kind at the shed were a luxury. Electicity in shearing sheds was rare. Animal welfare wasn’t considered an issue.There were no guards on any machinery in the shed. The list goes on. So compared to back then things have improved considerably but obviously there is still a long way to go. A widening of the gap and an “us and them” approach between wool growers and contractors/ individual shearers and shed hands/ classers etc should be avoided. A unified effort by the industry as a whole will reap benefit for all.

Steve Boyson7:27 am 31 Jan 21

Fair pay and conditions for one of the hardest jobs going

It’s not just in NSW this is also happening in Vic
There isn’t enough shears & some are only working for cash it’s not good
There’s sheds with no toilet, they have to take there food in a esky & leave it in the car as nowhere to put it
Farmers all over Australia need to listen

Peter whatley10:43 pm 29 Jan 21

EBeen waiting 50 yrs for this hope they cantshear there sheep mice running over me at night sleeping on the floor no toilets no drinking water lunch rooms what eat on the board over it they doing you a faver giving you a job na. They worked kewee against Aust get cheaper rate you shearer’s have to stick up for yourself my days are over

jenny McOnie6:58 pm 29 Jan 21

…the Farmers working “against ” themselves…always have…always will. They need to realise they are “workers” the same as the fencers and the shearers and the pickers and join a body that protects them all…The Labour Party !

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