New Zealand struggles to find dairy workers

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

DairyNZ said border closures and an unemployment rate at 3.4% are creating ongoing stress for dairy farmers.  Pic: Getty Images/Tatomm
DairyNZ said border closures and an unemployment rate at 3.4% are creating ongoing stress for dairy farmers. Pic: Getty Images/Tatomm

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Applications are now open for dairy farmers to recruit much needed international workers including farm assistants and herd managers, under changes to a class exception scheme.

This follows months of DairyNZ advocacy requesting changes to the 2021 class border exception process, which resulted in the Government announcing in December more dairy farm assistants would be allowed across the border to meet strong demand on farms.

In June 2021, the Government provided provisional approval for 200 international dairy workers to apply to enter New Zealand under a class exception scheme. This included a limit of 50 farm assistants, with the remaining positions to be filled by herd manager and assistant managers.

“We know many farmers are having difficulty finding Kiwis to fill dairy positions, and the demand for farm assistants is particularly strong,”​ said DairyNZ chief executive Dr Tim Mackle.

"We have been pushing hard for the Government to recognize the need for changes to the quota to allow for greater flexibility and more farm assistants to enter New Zealand.”

The Government said in December it will remove restrictions on the number of farm assistants that are part of the quota of 200 workers, and allow the quota to be made up of any mix of farm assistants, herd managers and assistant managers.

While the changes are positive, Mackle said DairyNZ is continuing to strongly advocate for another 1,500 international dairy workers to be allowed into the country this year to help fill a critical shortage of dairy staff – estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000 workers.

“Border closures and an unemployment rate at 3.4% are creating ongoing stress for dairy farmers. Without the right number of people on farm, it puts animal welfare at risk, constrains the sector’s ability to make environmental progress, and places a greater burden on increasingly stretched teams, with staff often having to work extraordinary hours.

“While we acknowledge the situation is uncertain, there is no point having the class exception if people can’t actually then get into the country due to border restrictions.”

“We have put a number of suggestions to Government for how we could manage the health risk and the labor needs. We are exploring on-farm isolation with MPI as an option. Farms are already away from communities, and farmers are used to maintaining good hygiene standards.”

DairyNZ, Federated Farmers and Dairy Women’s Network also made a request in November 2021 for a further 1,500 international workers to be allowed to enter New Zealand in 2022. Mackle said the workforce shortage is a critical issue for the dairy sector.

Alongside work to recruit international workers, DairyNZ has a range of initiatives under way to attract Kiwis into dairy, including GoDairy. A new campaign is set to be launched to give Kiwis a better understanding of what it means to be a dairy farmer.

DairyNZ is also leading the development of a Dairy Workforce Resilience Plan, which will involve farmers, dairy companies, sector groups and the Government in creating an evidence-based roadmap to put the sector on a sustainable path to recruit and retain people.

Salaries for people working on dairy farms have increased significantly over the past two years, and many roles offer accommodation on site.

“There are many different job opportunities in dairy and it can offer a rewarding career path. We encourage New Zealanders to visit if they are interested in getting into dairy,”​ Mackle said.

Farmers can find out more about the border class exception process online at

To be eligible to apply to bring an international worker into New Zealand, employers must show they have been unable to fill the position within New Zealand.

The starting point is an application for nomination by an employer and their prospective international employee to be submitted to DairyNZ.

If the applicant is successful in receiving a nomination, then the employer files an expression of interest with ImmigrationNZ. If that is approved, ImmigrationNZ then issues an invitation to apply for a visa to the international employee.

Related topics Markets Dairy Health Check COVID-19