Meat & Livestock News

Labour Challenges in Red Meat Processing Show Signs of Easing Amidst Production Growth


  • Recent trends indicate an easing in red meat processing labour challenges, with a notable increase in slaughter numbers early in 2024 compared to the previous year.
  • The improvement is partly due to greater access to processing labour, including a significant rise in offshore labour through the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme and Temporary Skills Shortage visas.
  • Despite the current positive outlook, the expected growth in beef production raises concerns about potential future labour shortages and the need for continued support and efficiency improvements in the processing sector.

Recent developments suggest that the red meat processing industry is beginning to overcome some of the labour challenges experienced last year. Early 2024 saw a significant increase in slaughter numbers, with the first four weeks showing a 12% rise compared to the same period in 2023, as reported by the National Livestock Reporting Service. This improvement is attributed not only to a steady cattle supply but also to enhanced access to processing labour.

Several of Australia’s leading multi-site processors have reported a less acute labour shortage compared to the previous year. Notably, a major Queensland plant is set to boost its production capacity, and a group of six beef plants in southern Australia are increasing their throughput. The new Thomas Foods International plant at Murray Bridge is now processing 500 head a day, nearing its initial target of 600/day.

The easing of labour challenges is also reflected in the industry’s ability to resume labour-intensive processes that were previously abandoned to maintain carcass throughput. This shift is crucial for maximising value from offals and bespoke manufacturing activities, which had been sidelined due to labour constraints.

Offshore Labour’s Growing Role

The influx of offshore labour has been a key factor in the recent expansion of processing volumes. The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, facilitating temporary migration from Pacific island nations to address workforce shortages, has seen a 27% increase in workers employed in meat processing over the past year.

Additionally, the use of labour from countries like China, Brazil, the Philippines, and Vietnam under the Temporary Skills Shortage visa is on the rise, further bolstering the workforce.

This increase in labour resources has had a tangible impact on plant throughput. For example, adding ten additional boners to a production floor can increase throughput by 1,000 head per week, illustrating the significant role skilled labour plays in processing efficiency.

Future Challenges and Opportunities

As the industry enjoys a period of relief from labour shortages, the focus shifts to the future, with beef and lamb production projected to grow significantly. Meat & Livestock Australia forecasts a 20% increase in the national adult beef kill over the next two years, highlighting the potential for labour shortages to re-emerge as a challenge.

The strong start to 2024 for Australian red meat processing volumes underscores the sector’s current efficiency. However, the industry remains vigilant, aware that favourable conditions have temporarily alleviated what could have been a more severe labour capacity test.

The processing sector’s ability to attract skilled staff and integrate labour-saving technologies, such as robotics, will be critical in maintaining efficiency and addressing future challenges.

This period of adjustment and growth in the red meat processing industry reflects a broader need for ongoing support and innovation to sustain its positive trajectory amidst fluctuating supply and demand dynamics.