Affco and Meatworkers Union square off in court again over Wairoa lockout

An Employment Court hearing has begun in Auckland over stalled negotiations between Talley's-owned meat processor Affco and the Meat Workers Union.

An Employment Court hearing has begun in Auckland over stalled negotiations between Talley's-owned meat processor Affco and the Meat Workers Union on a return to work by 200 Wairoa freezing workers who have been out of work for the past 135 days.

The court unanimously decided in November that Affco's lockout of freezing workers at plants across the North Island who had refused to sign individual contracts earlier in the year was illegal. It also said  Affco had breached s32 of the Employment Relations Act 2000 by not acting in good faith while collective bargaining was continuing.

Workers at other plants eventually returned to work under the new contracts but a number of Wairoa workers refused to sign.

Both parties were ordered to return to mediation on the Wairoa return to work and any remedies were postponed until after that occurred. However, further mediation talks have failed to resolve the long-running stoush. An urgent hearing before Christmas where the union sought an injunction failed but the judge ruled the union had an arguable case and the hearing, set down for three days, was brought forward to today.

Some 10 of the Wairoa freezing workers turned up in the public gallery at today's hearing before Judge Bruce Corkill, sporting green union "jobs that count" t-shirts, which the company has banned workers from wearing on its sites.

Under dispute are the terms and conditions on which they return to work. The union told the court today that Affco, the country's fourth-largest meat processor, continues to insist the locked out workers should restart work on the night shift, which the union contends is unreasonable and discriminatory.

Union lawyer Peter Cranney told the court Affco asserted it had a "right to transfer anyone, anytime, to any job."

Meatworkers Union national secretary Graham Cooke gave evidence that the collective agreement contains seniority provisions, which means nearly all the Wairoa workers should start on a day shift, even though that means non-union members already employed may need to have their position changed. Day-shift workers are often employed longer throughout the season – for up to 10 months compared to a typical five months for a night-shift worker.

Typically, meat companies start the season with a day shift and build up to include a second shift at night as stock numbers rise and the season peaks.

However, Affco has for the first time started the season with both a day and night-time shift at all its North Island plants apart from Moerewa, and contends that, had the lockout never occurred, the workers involved would all have been employed on the night shift.

Mr Cooke admitted under cross-examination that seniority was not the only consideration taken into account when staff were reengaged for the season but he said it was standard throughout the industry that it was the predominant factor.

Mr Cooke also claimed that it was uneconomic for the company to be running two shifts at the start of the season and that it had only done so because it wanted to put all workers at once on to the new terms and conditions under the individual contracts.

Affco's lawyer, Paul Wicks QC, said the company's decision could have rested on a number of things, including climate, economic factors, and the inability of competitors to buy stock at this time.

Cooke said member feedback was that the plants were processing low stock numbers and that they were working reduced hours and earning low wages.

The company's evidence was that it had "more employees working longer and earning more," Mr Wicks said.

A second court case set down for November claiming the company walked away from negotiations on the collective contract that expired in 2013 was postponed until after the mediation talks on the lockout issue.

Affco was the first under the government's new employment law to apply for an end to bargaining under amendments to the Employment Relations Act, which lets 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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