The meat industry is urging the Government to recognise the essential role of skilled migrant workers, saying failure to do so could have "significant adverse consequences" for the sector and farmers across the country.
The Meat Industry Association (MIA) says around a third of the country's 250 essential halal processing workers will have to leave New Zealand next year due to the Government's one-year stand-down policy.
"Most of the 42 halal processing plants in New Zealand now operate between 10-12 months per year," Sirma Karapeeva, chief executive of MIA, said on Thursday.
"A shortage of skilled halal processing people could result in production at many plants being limited to six months in the year, which would mean processing of livestock for farmers is severely disrupted and employees might be let go.
"Under the Government's one-year stand-down policy, which applies to low skilled workers, some 80 of these essential halal processing people, and at least 260 other essential meat workers currently working in New Zealand, will be forced to leave."
Karapeeva said halal production was a key aspect of the industry's "approach to meeting consumer requirements globally" and the skilled workers were "absolutely critical to sustaining the entire industry of 25,000 workers".
Although it was the industry's preference to employ local workers to fill the positions, said Karapeeva, so far it had not been possible to do so.
"We are working hard to attract people who have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. However, the export demand for halal products means we have a high need for certified practising Muslim processing people and these are highly specialised roles.
"While we recruit as many as we can domestically, it significantly falls short of our need. That means we have no option but to look to migrants to fill some 150 roles each year."
Karapeeva said since 2002 the meat processing industry had been granted an annual Approval in Principle (AIP) to bring in around 145 halal processing people from overseas to fill the necessary positions.
MIA was now urging the Government to extend the time that skilled migrant workers are allowed to remain and work in New Zealand.
Karapeeva said negotiations with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) on a sector agreement to streamline future migration of halal processing people and do away with the annual AIPs were on hold due to COVID-19. She also said the industry's request for an exemption to roll over the current AIP for 12 months to keep current halal slaughterers in New Zealand, had been refused.
"The current immigration policy settings would have significant adverse consequences for our industry and mean we would not be able to operate at optimum capacity or deliver the full economic and social benefits to the country during the recovery," she said.
"We have tried to engage constructively with officials, however progress has been slow and the industry is running out of time."