It is of note during the previous five weeks isolation under Covid-19 alert level 4 that most meat processing plants and their downstream industries have continued to operate, albeit in reduced capacity due to protocols around self-distancing and regulations determined by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).
Most of the workers in these facilities adapted and got on with their jobs, acknowledging a degree of risk existed in doing so. A minority of workers were unable to work due to underlying health issues or childcare responsibilities.
The NZ Meat Workers Union was front and centre, working in unison with industry players like MPI, the meat Industry Association (MIA) and Meat processors in order to enable processing to continue.
It was apparent to us, the NZMW Union that farmers have been experiencing drought, killing space has been at a premium due to reduced capacity at processing plants and there have been restrictions on movement culminating in a bottleneck which has had downstream consequences.
The nature of work in our industry is dirty, dangerous and unbecoming to many people, which, historically, has created issues with recruitment and retention of staff to fill these positions.
During level 4 there were many public accolades bestowed on workers in our industry by farmers, meat-processing companies and others, acknowledging how our members stepped up to the plate and just got on with doing their job.
It is also noteworthy that several meat companies provided extra income for workers (and some of those in isolation). One company paid a premium of $200 per week for two weeks then reduced this to $100, another company gifted a food hamper of meat, vege and other products to their workers, while another donated $100,000 worth of minced meat to charity groups to help feed the needy in the Waikato.
This paradigm is both interesting and pleasing to witness.
The NZ meat industry has, for many years, struggled to maximise its true potential. Unhealthy competition at the farm gate and in the market place coupled with meat companies having trouble recruiting and retaining good workers have been some of the impediments.
For many years the NZ Meat Workers Union has championed the idea of bringing industry players together in a forum to discuss and provide solutions to some of these problems.
Unfortunately, this call has largely been ignored.
It appears that among the fallout from Covid-19 there will be many thousands of people who will be jobless. Doubtless this will provide some respite to employers in terms of recruiting new workers to the industry.
It seems to me if it is possible for industry players to come together at a time of crisis it makes perfect sense to continue this positive vibe and build a more inclusive environment into the future.
So here is a challenge to all players in our industry: let's get together and rebuild our industry because, looking into the future, our industry will likely dominate the landscape and we will continue to be one of the biggest contributors to our economy.
If nothing else, Covid-19 has clarified that our industry is not broken, just a bit battered, and needs a bit of inclusion and acknowledgement that we all have a part to play.
• EJ Mischefski is Organiser NZ Meat Workers Union