Imagine working a 10-hour day of non-stop physical activity then go to have a wash to find there is no soap and not even a dish of water to clean your hands.
Unfortunately this is the norm for thousands of shearers and wool handlers across Australia.
Shearing is an iconic Australian industry that is witnessing a shortage in skilled labourers, and less than adequate working conditions could be playing a part when is comes to enticing new recruits into the profession.
Some sheds have no flushing toilet and no running water.
According to the latest Australian Bureau of statistics (ABS) figures, the industry has 30 per cent less shearers in its workforce than it did in 2006.
To attract more people to the profession, attitudes towards the industry need to change and and a nation-wide approach must be taken says industry bodies.
Jason Letchford from the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia said it is a frustrating section of agriculture to work in.
Apart from being one of Australia’s most dangerous agricultural professions, working conditions have not improved over time and is some cases, deteriorated.
“Shearers really don’t ask for much,” Mr Letchford said.
“We need to get every shearing shed up-to-date with safe equipment that will pay for itself in productivity. That includes sheds being updates with anti lock technology.
“But it extends further than that. When we talk about attraction or retention to the industry at our AGM and regional meetings a number of topics come up.”
He said throwing more money at workers on a per head or hourly rate is not going to solve the shortage, but having a workplace that is pleasant to work at would help.
“In some cases, the lack of decent amenities reflects a lack of respect for those workers and the difficulty of the job,” he said.
“Not many people in the western world would choose to go and work in shearing sheds that are going to be more than 50 degrees all day during the summer months.
“Solutions are needed and we just can’t sit back and wait until we haven’t got enough shearers and wool handlers to do the job.”
Jo Hall, CEO of WoolProducers Australia (WPA), said wool growers have a legal responsibility to provide a workplace that is safe.
“There is also a basic expectation that all amenities for shed staff are acceptable, including the provision of running water, clean eating areas and toilets,” Ms Hall said.
There is also a basic expectation that all amenities for shed staff are acceptable
“WoolProducers views workplace health and safety as a shared responsibility between both the grower and the shearing team.
“With the high prices that wool is achieving at the moment, WPA would like to think that some of this money would be reinvested into infrastructure to ensure that growers aren’t only meeting their legal requirements but also to foster a culture of mutual respect with employees.”
As demand climbs, will the shortage intensify?
Australia is in the midst of a wool commodity boom with record prices of about $2000 per bale.
There are currently just under 3000 shearers across Australia, but a huge demand for wool.
The only saving grace is the Australian sheep flock has stabilised in the last few years to around 70 million and the current drought will inhibit any expansion on that for a few years to come.
Mr Letchford said if wool prices remain high and farmers want their wool harvested then they need to be looking at the big picture.
“We need to look at the greater and broader conditions of how we can make shearing workplaces better,” he said.
“And lose that attitude of ‘they are only here for one week, what’s the big deal’.
“If all growers had that mentality, add together another 48 farmers with that same attitude, you just about have a year’s work in less than adequate workplaces.”
According to Mr Letchford, if we end up with a greater shearer shortage it is going to be a case of workers, including contractors, picking and choosing where and when they go and do the work.
“If you have shoddy conditions then you are going to be at the end of the queue,” he said.
“It’s only going to be exacerbated at key shearing times.
“Eight-month shearing is a classic example where you are going to end up wanting to shear in busy times.
“It will be shearers and shearing contractors telling farmers when they are going to be doing their shearing.”
Rebate program available
As part of SafeWork NSW’s Agriculture Work Health and Safety Sector Plan, SafeWork NSW is working with the shearing industry, including the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia and NSW Farmers to identify solutions to common safety issues, including musculoskeletal injuries, plant guarding and electrical safety.
“This involves raising awareness of on-farm issues leading to musculoskeletal injuries and the types of practical controls that can be implemented,” a spokesperson from Safe Work NSW said.
“Shearing sheds are often not fitted with residual current devices (RCDs), commonly known as safety switches. SafeWork NSW will promote the fitting of RCDs in shearing sheds to reduce the risk and incidence of electric shock.”
SafeWork NSW’s Small Business Rebate Program offers rebates of up to $500 to farmers who make safety improvements to the shearing shed such as replacing old gear with new electric plant or installing guarding on overhead gear to eliminate entanglement risks.