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Shearer Shortage Leaves Australian Wool Industry in Crisis - 2004-07-27

They epitomize the romance of the Australian Outback but sheep shearers are deserting the job in droves, sending the country's wool industry into crisis. Low wages and tough working conditions have led to a sharp fall in the number of shearers.

Shearing sheep is one of Australia's iconic occupations, celebrated in paintings and poems.

In the 1980s there were around 30,000 sheep shearers. Today there are fewer than 7,000. The lure of better paid jobs elsewhere and a long-standing drought have hurt the trade.

Over the past 100 years, the job has changed very little. Shearers work at thousands of farms and ranches, or stations, across Australia's vast, dry, lonely Outback.

"Well, here we are," said Terry O'Connor, a former national shearing champion. "We've arrived at a shearing shed called Glenzo. Obviously, the only way you can get into it is up the stairs into the shed and when you walk into the shed the shearers will make their way round to the stands where they're going to shear the sheep."

Mr. O'Connor now works for the Australian Workers' Union, which is campaigning for better pay and conditions for those doing one of the Outback's toughest jobs.

It involves long hours spent dragging heavy sheep out of their pens, throwing them on their backs and removing their tangled and dirty fleeces with electric clippers. A good shearer can get through as many as two hundred sheep a day, one animal every two minutes. But the job can exact a heavy toll of chronic back pain and other ailments.

Les MacIlvine has spent four decades working in the shearing sheds.

He sees very few young men taking up the trade and he worries about what the future holds for this most demanding of jobs.

"You've got to be tough. It's hard on your back. It's hard on your arms and legs. I don't know what they're going to do," he said. "I was in a shed the year before last in March and the average age was 62. There was 12 of us there, average age 62. Not real good is it?"

A drought across parts of Australia has dramatically reduced the number of sheep. As a result fewer shearers are needed. However, when the national flock recovers, the wool trade will have a serious problem without enough shearers.

A young face in the wool shed is not a common sight these days, so 22-year old John Hill stands out.

John has been shearing for almost a year and is prepared to accept the tough conditions while he saves money to buy his own sheep farm.

He is following his father and brothers into the trade and is under no illusions as to how hard his chosen career will be.

Mr. Hill says the pay is fair, although he is never guaranteed a day's work.

"See, if you have wet sheep if it rains you don't shear. Yeah, so it's pretty seasonal," he said. "Yeah, it's a very physical job and it's hard work. Plan to shear for 15 years and buy my own property, have people shear for me then."

There are very few women in this line of work. Old hands tend to do all they can to stop their sons and daughters entering a trade that they both love and dislike.

Billy Graham and his mate Les MacIlvine have spent a lifetime as friends in the heat and dust of the wool sheds.

"You know, they're all sort of straightforward fellows, good blokes to work with," said Mr. Graham. "It's in my opinion a good life but I don't think I'd do it over again. You know, I'm here now and I gotta to stay here I suppose. I win lotto and I might give it away."

Mr. MacIlvine reckons he will stay put.

"No, I love the game," he said. "Well, I'm 64 and who's going to give someone a job at 64? I can still come out here and shear my 150-160. It's all right."

A new national training program to recruit and train shearers has been started but it might not be enough. It will take a mighty effort to persuade young workers that their future lies in the demanding wool sheds of Australia.