Court adjourns on meatworkers' claim
By Fiona Rotherham
Oct. 5 (BusinessDesk) - An Employment Court stoush between the New Zealand Meat and Related Trades Union and Talleys Group-controlled meat processor Affco New Zealand over new individual contracts has been adjourned while the union clarifies what remedies it’s seeking, including monetary compensation.
The remedies being sought will be outlined in court tomorrow when the lawyers representing Affco are due to argue their statement of defence. The defence was to have started today, but the three judges of the Employment Court adjourned proceedings, saying they wanted a more specific claim for remedies from the union.
The union action alleges it was unlawful for Affco to force workers to accept individual contracts that impose punitive conditions during collective bargaining and that refusing to re-engage union members in the new season unless they accepted certain demands was an unlawful lock-out. The demands were a requirement to participate in individual bargaining and to sign an agreement on the employer’s terms.
About 26 Wairoa meat workers who have refused to sign individual contracts packed the public gallery of the court wearing green union t-shirts emblazoned with “Jobs that Count”. Spokesman Pete Amato said "someone has to stand up" though desperation had forced around 80 of the original 250 to give in and sign on the contracts after weeks of holding out.
Other Wairoa workers said the dispute had pitted "brother against brother" with families divided over signing under these conditions.
The union’s amended statement of claim covers the Rangiuru, Imlay and Manawatu plants only though the union lawyer Peter Cranney said the case has implications for all of Affco’s eight plants in the North Island including Wairoa.
The union wants the court to order the new individual contracts be repudiated and the rights of union workers under the expired collective contract to be reinstated.
A second Employment Court hearing is set down for November, claiming Affco walked away from negotiations on the collective contract that expired in 2013.
The company became the first under the government’s new employment law to apply for an end to bargaining. Amendments to the Employment Relations Act, introduced in March this year, let firms opt out of multi-employer agreements and removed the duty under good faith bargaining for both sides to reach agreement.
The union failed in a June bid in the Employment Court for an interim injunction against Affco claiming it was locking out 190 workers at its Rangiuru plant who refused to sign individual contracts rather than the collective agreement. Chief Employment Court Judge Graeme Colgan dismissed the injunction but ordered immediate mediation.
In court today, Cranney said an employer bargaining for a collective agreement can’t directly or indirectly bargain with employees represented by the union and that it was also unlawful to lock employees out when pursuing individual employment agreements.
He said the lock out, in the form of refusing to engage or breaching re-engagement obligations, was a powerful economic weapon.
“In the context of the meat industry, it imposes poverty and deprivation not only on the employees denied work, but on families and children,” he said.
The new individual contracts were dramatically different to the current expired collective agreement but mirrored what the company had sought in negotiations including abolishing seniority and making all end-of-season layoff and re-engagement decisions management prerogative, increased hours of works while abolishing the weekly minimum pay and including a pay cut, and a requirement to work shifts as instructed.
Cranney told the court the company was arguing the workers couldn’t be locked out because they weren’t employees and that the work being offered was for a fixed-term rather than continuous employment.
“These people have worked for this company for decades and although the fixed-term stops every season, their employment doesn’t,” he said. “The fact they can lose their seniority rights if they don’t return each season suggests they have a right to continuous employment.”
Affco, which is the country’s fourth largest meat processor, has said the vast majority of its workers, including union members, are now on individual contracts.