James Ihaka

James Ihaka is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

Meatworkers in lockout battle

Locked-out Horotiu meat worker Drew Fletcher with his partner Mere Tiana and their children Charnt and Demetri. Photo / Dean Purcell
Locked-out Horotiu meat worker Drew Fletcher with his partner Mere Tiana and their children Charnt and Demetri. Photo / Dean Purcell

Meatworker Drew Fletcher says the hardest thing about being locked out of work this Easter is the effect on the children.

"It's an adjustment for our kids," he said this week. His daughter Charnt, 8, and son Demetri, 3, will be joined by a new baby in July.

"They used to get everything. It's not like they can get everything any more - we're not going out to places and stuff like that."

Mr Fletcher, 28, of Ngaruawahia, has worked in the freezers at Affco's nearby Horotiu meatworks for the past six years. His partner Mere Tiana, 26, has worked there slightly longer.

"When she starts, I finish, so we always have someone to look after the kids," he said. "I would do the day shift from 6am to 3pm and my partner started from 3.30pm and worked till midnight or 1am."

That routine was shattered on February 29, when Affco locked out 120 out of 280 union members at Horotiu. Mr Fletcher was one of the unlucky ones.

Ms Tiana was lucky - she kept working until she had to stop because of a bad back three weeks ago.

Since then the family has had no income. They haven't applied for welfare benefits because they are trying to get accident compensation for Ms Tiana's back injury.

They have applied to their bank for a mortgage holiday, and they're trying to get access on hardship grounds to the money they've saved for their retirement through KiwiSaver. In the meantime, they're living on debt.

"We just use our credit card. It's maxed out," Mr Fletcher said.

At Moerewa in Northland, Horotiu, Rangiuru near Te Puke, Wairoa, Wanganui and Feilding, about 1500 Affco workers are locked out this Easter in a bitter duel with the Motueka-based Talley family, who took full ownership 18 months ago of what was once the farmer-owned Auckland Farmers Freezing Co-operative.

Although the dispute has barely registered in the big cities, it affects far more people than the 235 watersiders who were locked out at the Ports of Auckland until a week ago. Affco's handling of the dispute, which began as a standard two-year wage negotiation, has also been highly unusual.

Meatworkers' Union president Mike Nahu and secretary Dave Eastlake were called to a February 24 meeting in Nelson with Affco chief executive Hamish Simson and director Michael Talley, who manages his family's meat industry interests, after just three negotiating sessions and without any threat of strike action from the union.

By Mr Eastlake's account, Mr Talley "spent most of the meeting over-talking us and eventually produced a lawyer from the back room who had the lockout notice in his hand". The notice named 760 union members who were locked out, but allowed about 900 other union members to keep working.

A further 213 workers at Rangiuru were locked out later after they took part in a strike by all union members protesting at the lockout. About 480 more have been locked out just for Easter after joining the strikes.

Mr Talley declined to speak to the Weekend Herald, but Affco operations manager Rowan Ogg said the company locked out only some union members to keep "a workable team" in all plants.

"The rationale was to try and put pressure on to further the negotiations, pure and simple," he said.

But Auckland University employment law expert Bill Hodge said he had never heard of such a partial lockout before. "It's contrary to the purpose and ambit of the way the legislation is shaped," he said.

On Thursday, the Employment Court agreed to hear a union claim that the the lockout is unlawful on April 23-24. Before then, the two sides are due to meet this coming Thursday for mediation.

The Talleys, valued at $300 million in last year's Rich List, have been here before. NZ Council of Trade Unions secretary Peter Conway, who also flew to Nelson in a fruitless bid to stave off the lockout just before it was imposed, describes them as "a tough family".

Nelson-based Service and Food Workers' Union official Neville Donaldson says only a handful of workers in the Talleys' original fishing, vegetable and icecream businesses have joined a union, and they are all confidential members because "Talley's makes no secret as an employer that they don't support unions".

In 2009, after winning control of Waikato-based Open Country Cheese, the company responded to a strike by 36 workers by bringing in staff from an associated company, Open Country Dairy.

That case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled last year that Open Country acted illegally by using other staff to do the work that would normally have been done by the striking workers. But the workers had moved on and Open Country now has no union presence.

This time Mr Ogg says the issue is not the union's presence but its "outdated and restrictive work practices".

Almost all meatworks in the country still operate a unique system of "seniority" which guarantees work in each new season to workers from the last season in order of when they were first employed.

Affco challenged this at the start of the 2010-11 season by offering individual contracts paying 3 per cent above the collective agreement on the basis that seniority applied only to those in the collective. Mr Ogg said the extra pay made up for the individual contracts' inferior sick leave, long-service leave and redundancy pay.

The union went to the Employment Court, which ruled that the collective agreement required Affco to re-employ union members based on seniority lists which included all workers, including individual contractors.

Almost all meatworks, including all the Affco works, also pay most of their workers on a combination of hourly rates and bonuses for processing pre-set daily animal tallies, with agreed numbers of butchers, boners and other positions for every agreed tally.

Mr Ogg said the system often paid workers for more hours than they actually worked.

"When that tally is reached during the day, everyone packs up and goes home. That might be after six hours," he said. "We think there is a requirement to work eight hours at ordinary time." He said the system raised costs, lowered the prices Affco could pay for livestock, and encouraged farmers to send animals to higher-paying works such as Universal Beef Packers at Te Kuiti and Riverlands in Taranaki.

However, the union's Horotiu branch president Don Arnold fears that working faster and longer would endanger his members' health.

"The average [working] life of a boner at Universal is 10 years. They are young guys, they go for it and earn huge money - $300 a day. But they are going to pay for it," he said.

"Our guys get just over $200 a day, but we still have boners working in their 50s. They are feeling it, but they've got a longer life span."

Mr Ogg says Affco has kept operating through the dispute by locking out only some union members, and because more than 30 per cent of its total workforce had accepted individual contracts even before the lockout.

On his count, that figure has now risen to more than half.

A Horotiu labourer who asked to be called just "Barry" said he signed up as an individual from the start because he was afraid of being locked out if he joined the collective, and to get a $1000 bonus paid to the individual contractors each year if they turn up for work at least 98 per cent of the time.

Despite next week's mediation, both sides seem to be digging in. Mr Ogg said the company was willing to keep the lockout up indefinitely.

Mr Eastlake said Mr Talley had closed down plants before to beat the union and seemed bent on a similar plan.

"He can't close Affco down, he'd have to pay redundancy pay to all the people in the collective agreement. So he has chosen this way," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me if the lockout lasted till the last man standing."

- NZ Herald

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