THE meat processing industry is up to 4000 jobs short on any given day and the sector has blasted the government for its ham-fisted handling of skilled migrants visas.
The industry told a parliamentary inquiry the approval time for skilled migrant visas was disgraceful and the process had to be streamlined, while successful applicants needed a clear pathway to permanent residency.
Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive Patrick Hutchinson said the meat sector bought 90 per cent of the nation's livestock, and the impacts of its labour shortage flowed on to the rest of the ag industry.
"If we sneeze, agriculture gets a cold - and at the moment, we've got the sniffles," Mr Hutchinson said.
"If this [labour shortage] is not reversed, this will have a larger and more significant impact on the meat industry, and consequently rural communities.
"Farmers are the ones that will suffer if we don't have that workforce in play."
For years, the meat industry has struggled to maintain a stable workforce and has relied on skilled migrants to fill gaps.
However, the system is far from perfect and its problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic border closures.
Mr Hutchinson said one major processor in Queensland was paying $250,000 a week in overtime to cover its labour shortfall.
"That doesn't help the worker in their longevity in the industry and it doesn't help the company in their longevity," he said.
EC Throsby operations manager Donna Fuller said there had been a substantial drop in the number of domestic workers applying for jobs.
"A few years ago, if I put an ad up for a labouring job, I got 300 applicants - a couple of months ago, I got 80 applicants," Ms Filler said.
"Out of those 80 people, the 85 per cent that I called, the phone number didn't exist, didn't answer the phone or they didn't return my calls.
"Many of the remaining people won't pass a health test, particularly our drug and alcohol test."
EC Throsby recently forked out more than $100,000 to bring in 34 workers from Fiji for its Singleton plant, which included paying for a chartered plane, quarantining arrangements and housing.
"It is time consuming and expensive to employ migrant workers, but we really need the workers," Ms Fuller said.
"If we didn't get these guys in, we wouldn't be operating at the level we're at - we're already at 50 per cent reduction, these guys have helped us keep that level rather than reducing further."
Mr Hutchinson said the Department of Home Affairs had to improve its communication and transparency around where visa application stood in the cue.
"We want to know what is the cue, how long is the cue and how can we get that moving," he said.
Ms Fuller said since 2019, EC Throsby had lodged 11 permanent residency applications but was yet to hear anything from the Department of Home Affairs.
"We have no idea where our approvals are going, we get no communication back," she said.
Australian Pork Limited chief executive Margo Andre said the pork industry was "really frustrated" with the way the Department of Home Affairs handled skilled migrant applications, because "the system should work beautifully".
"We feel like we're being stalled, the process our producers are being asked to go through isn't clear and it isn't transparent," Ms Andre said.