Affco, Meatworkers Union head for mediation

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Affco, Meatworkers Union head for mediation as meat company prepares to appeal Employment Court ruling

Affco, Meatworkers Union head for mediation as meat company prepares to appeal Employment Court ruling

By Jonathan Underhill

Nov. 30 (BusinessDesk) – Affco New Zealand and the NZ Meatworkers Union will sit down to mediation this week after the Employment Court ruled that the Talleys Group-controlled meat processor unlawfully locked out workers and didn’t act in good faith.

The union isn’t optimistic that mediation will deliver much, saying that since the ruling on Nov. 18 it has been prevented from getting access to its members at meat plants, while those that have been allowed to return to work have been offered inferior shifts and those already at work haven’t yet been re-engaged under the terms of the expired collective agreement, rather than on individual contracts they were “forced” to sign in order to return to work at the start of the season. Affco says it is complying with the terms of the ruling but is in the process of seeking leave to challenge it in the Court of Appeal.

‘We’re in a bigger quagmire now because of the way Affco has abused the process yet again,” said Graham Cooke, the union’s national secretary. “They use the words but don’t do the actions.”

Central to the Employment Court ruling from Chief Judge Graeme Colgan, Judge Mark Perkins and Judge Tony Ford was that meat workers are deemed to be in continuous employment even though they are laid off at the end of the season and rehired for the new season. That overturned several decades-old cases, known as the Alliance cases and the Richmond case, that held there was no continuity and had been cited as precedent in a number of cases over the years.

“That law was set primarily under the Richmond case about 30 years ago and upheld in a number of subsequent cases,” said Affco director of operations Rowan Ogg. The decision of the Employment Court was therefore “rather a surprise”. The decision will be subject of a challenge in the Court of Appeal “and in the interim we’re complying with what the court has said.”

Ogg declined to comment on the appeal but said Affco’s issues with the expired collective contract included conditions that hadn’t changed in 50 years and were no longer appropriate in an industry that “is looking for far more flexibility.”

BusinessDesk understands a conference call is to be held tomorrow between Chief Judge Colgan, Affco’s layer Paul Wicks QC and the union’s lawyer Peter Cranney, of Wellington law firm Oakley Moran.

Yet the Employment Court found the Alliance and Richmond rulings had also become outdated, saying that the nature of employment generally and its regulation “have changed significantly over the last 30 years or so in New Zealand, including at times when a number of the cases which concluded that seasonal meat industry work was discontinuous, were decided.”

“To maintain, as Affco does, that its recent current arrangements for the employment of meatworkers reflect those traditional patterns reinforced by court decision in the past, is now an artificial, unrealistic and strained account of the reality of the situation at its plants and under current employment law,” the judges found.

The case covered workers at Affco’s Rangiuru, Imlay, and Manawatu plants but the company had accepted any finding would cover all eight of its North Island plants, of which only Moerewa in Northland is still to open for the season. Affco’s Ogg said unionised meat workers were returning to its factories, including those at Wairoa who had opted not to sign inferior individual contracts. The union said it hasn’t yet seen evidence that Wairora workers are being hired back on the original contract

The union said it has been hindered by the company in trying to represent its members and that workers were pressured to sign individual contracts in order to start work for the new season, instead of under the existing 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.

(BusinessDesk)

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