Staff shortages have cost a Northland meat works millions of dollars over the past year - a bull of a problem the meat industry is about to take by the horns.
Silver Fern Farms in Dargaville employs 300 people but has "struggled" to get enough staff since the borders closed because of Covid-19, plant manager Lance Warmington says.
It meant that the meat works operated at about 280 staff - a level that placed pressure on other workers and also led to productivity drops.
With willing workers in Tonga but no way to get them into the country, the search for staff has consumed energy and money without lasting results.
The issue was one put to Minister of Finance Grant Robertson when he visited Northland on Friday. At a post-Budget session, Warmington asked Robertson: "Why can't we open the borders to Tonga? There are a huge number of people there who want to work for us."
Robertson's response - "the issue with Tonga is not our end" - reflected the concern the Pacific has over New Zealand potentially exporting Covid-19 through returning migrant workers.
But it nothing to solve Warming ton's immediate issue - getting enough staff to run the meat works at capacity. He told Robertson the productivity cost was "millions" of dollars.
"It's not for everyone. We get that," he told the Advocate, explaining the lengths he had gone to attract and retain staff. He said the company had spent "a good $40,000 on recruitment" since the problem emerged through advertising and even incentive payments to workers who connected the company with new staff.
Warmington said the difficulty in filling vacancies, and training staff to do the job, was draining on existing staff and placed pressure on supervisors.
Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said staffing shortages were an issue across the industry with about 2500 jobs going throughout New Zealand.
The association was weeks away from launching a website that tried to fill those vacancies with a campaign called "Meat Your Future".
She said the campaign and website would describe the roles available in the industry and list vacancies, giving job seekers the ability to search parts of New Zealand for jobs.
While stretched and seeking staff, there was currently a small buffer through employing those workers who had been caught in New Zealand when the borders closed. Those workers had recently had visas extended.
Karapeeva said those loss of those workers would deepen the problem.
"We are in a very precarious situation because these migrant workers currently here on working visas, they only have a small window of six months where their visas have been rolled over by the government."
Karapeeva said meat works had reduced production, some going as far as removing night shifts. The consequence was less stock through, less out, less paid in wages and changes in processing lines.
She said the shortages in staff and reduced access to skills meant less production of more expensive cuts of meat which were typically exported. The impact was widespread, she said, from reduced spending in communities where workers lived to less paid to farmers who sold stock.
"Companies are trying very hard to get the best return for their product. That's to give farmers the best return for their livestock. The flow-on implications are that the farmer may not see those higher returns at the farm gate."
Northland Inc chief executive Murray Reade said there was work under way to develop a targeted solution across a number of industries.
It wasn't a "quick fix" meeting New Zealand's shortage in skilled workers, he said. "Then you have a lag where you can train people up."
Reade was currently co-chair of a regional skills and leadership group reporting on gaps to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which was then developing a strategy to meet those needs.
MBIE border and visa general manager Nicola Hogg said there was a high bar to vault for those wanting entry to New Zealand while the border was under Covid-19 restrictions.
A person could come to New Zealand under the "other critical worker" category if they had "unique experience and technical or specialist skills" that were difficult to find in New Zealand, or if the person was in a role essential for major government-led or sponsored programmes, or had benefit to the national and regional economy.
"The government is constantly monitoring border settings."
The shortage of workers across the agricultural, horticultural and other farming areas has left some businesses strained and even stricken. Waipapa courgette grower Brett Heap recently announced he was selling his farm after a season of trying to use New Zealand workers to cover job usually done by seasonal workers from Thailand.