Whether seasonal workers at the Affco Rangiuru plant can be compelled to sign individual contracts has been argued before the Employment Court.

After a day-long hearing in Rotorua yesterday Chief Employment Court Judge Graeme Colgan reserved his decision for 25 hours but ordered immediate mediation.

An interim injunction against the Talley's-owed company was brought by the New Zealand Meat Workers Union, representing 190 members.

Many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the wording "Jobs that Count" packed the public gallery.

Advertisement

The union's lawyer, Simon Mitchell, argued those seeking the interim injunction wanted to be re-engaged at the plant when its new operating season begins on Monday, but were being denied the right to do so unless they signed individual employment agreements.

Previously those involved in the court action had been employed on collective contracts. The signed individual agreements were to have been handed back to the company by yesterday but the union intervened by lodging an application for an urgent injunction.

Mr Mitchell said the company was attempting to lock out those who refused to sign individual agreements. "They are saying if you don't agree to the terms and conditions offered you don't come back to work ..." he said, branding this "highly unfair".

He asked the court to clarify whether a lockout was lawful and to rule whether those involved were company employees or seasonal workers.

Appearing for the company, Rachel Webster denied Affco was locking out those who refused to sign individual agreements and said seasonal workers' employment ceased when the season ended.

Ms Webster claimed there was no evidence former seasonal workers had been denied employment.

She claimed if the injunction were granted the Rangiuru plant could close, but the judge intervened saying he considered that was a broad assertion he expected to be backed up by evidence. To a question from the judge Ms Webster said she did not envisage 190 individual bargaining sessions; that these could be combined.

Mr Mitchell said the company was trying to get the benefit of a collective agreement without bargaining.

Judge Colgan said the issues raised were complex, difficult and potentially far-ranging. "This has drifted on too long ... " he said, undertaking to contact the Ministry of Business Innovation and Development to make a mediator available.