Guest post: What to do about the shortage of workers in the meat industry?

Graham Cooke, NZ Meat Workers Union

The meat industry says there is a shortage of around 2,000 workers in the industry, but that is a challenge that goes well beyond simply demanding foreign workers to fill the gap, writes Graham Cooke, national secretary of the NZ Meat Workers Union (MWU).

Ask any long-term meat worker. I’m talking about the loyal workers, who have for years, come back year after year and who the industry has relied on for skills and productivity growth.

They will tell you things aren’t how they used to be.  Sure, the meat industry has always been a seasonal industry.  This means that no meat worker gets year-round work and there’s always a gap in their earnings.  Meat workers used to call this their ‘holidays’ because the gap was enough to be filled by their accrued holiday pay.

But that gap has grown bigger.  Wages have been steadily declining for the majority of meat workers over the last couple of decades while productivity has increased. The Living Wage of $20.50 doesn’t exist for many process workers and labourers.  You have to take into account their precarious work and months dependent on finding other work, or the State filling the gap with social welfare benefits.

As for holidays?  Who gets a paid holiday in the meat industry?

Then there’s the gradual encroachment into breaks, helped along by the National Government’s rest and meal breaks changes.  This means that meat workers are now, along with many other New Zealand workers doing unpaid work as they gear up, de-gear and re-gear before paid and unpaid breaks, and at the start and end of the day.

When the meat industry was deregulated in 1981, politicians and commentators encouraged the closure of meat plants where meat workers were readily available.   It has become obvious that in the small rural towns where the meat industry predominates there would eventually be a shortage of labour.  Young people are more mobile and seek better opportunities elsewhere. The skilled workforce is ageing, and the Freezing Works are no longer an attractive option.

Imagine this ; you work in a shitty job (I do mean animal faeces) with blood, heat, on your feet on concrete floors for hours a day, wearing increasingly invasive protective gear.  You rush to have a break, getting yelled at or punished if you are late back to the chain, the speed of which is regulated by the employer, or if you are lucky, by a union agreement.

Your pay depends on throughput, in other words how many beasts are killed on your shift. That’s called piece work.

We’ve been here before.  In 2005 the Meat Industry Association (MIA) said they needed 1,000 migrants and were looking to have the meat industry join the Regional Seasonal Employment Scheme.  The then Labour Government declined this request and set up a tripartite working group including the MWU, Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE, then Department of Labour) and the MIA.

There was a lot of work done to identify what would make the industry more attractive to working people and how to avoid costly competition. That report was shelved as soon as the National Government was elected in 2008.

Instead some employers in the meat industry have resorted to downward pressure on wages. They’re relying on the old methods of resisting unionisation, challenging workers who choose to join a union, using aggressive actions such as unlawful lockouts, refusing access by union officials and targeting union activists in layoffs and return to work.

I’m not saying the whole industry is like this.  It’s not.  We have good relationships with the majority of the industry, but it is time for them to step up.  It’s not good enough for their industry association to be moaning about the shortage of workers, when they have largely stood by and allowed one of the top five meat companies to impoverish and deunionise workers through some of the most appalling attacks on unionised workers we have seen in a decade.

It’s been disappointing to see the MIA join the chorus of “it’s going to ruin us” about the Employment Relations amendments, currently before Parliament.

In an industry that has had almost no industrial action in decades, apart from the militant (and unlawful) lockouts by AFFCO, this is pretty offensive.  In my experience, meat workers want to work together to make their industry successful and they are certainly not sitting around plotting national strikes.

There is another solution.  We reconvene the industry tripartite group.  We work together to find short term and longer solutions not only to labour shortages, but ways of making this industry attractive once again to working people.  We figure out how seasonal work can be real work; there are options.

That might mean, like other successful companies, getting over the short-termism of resisting labour law changes.  It could mean becoming an exemplar of industrial relations can work positively in a seasonal industry.

The Meat Workers Union has many ideas, because our members, meat workers who work day-to-day in this industry, can help. After all, they do the work on the front lines.

The challenge for the meat industry is whether they are prepared to listen.

Graham Cooke is the national secretary of the New Zealand Meat Workers Union.

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