Clash over fixed-term contract meat worker rights

BeefAn Employment Court clash 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 after three judges said they needed a more specific claim for remedies from the union, including monetary compensation.

Affco NZ has told the Employment Court case law to back up its stance that seasonal meat workers are not employed continuously and instead sign fixed-term contracts, so they cannot be said to have been locked out if they do not sign fresh contracts at the start of a new season.

It wants the court to order that the new individual contracts be repudiated and the rights of union workers under the expired collective contract to be reinstated.

The country’s fourth largest meat processor is presenting its statement of defence in a row with NZ Meat and Related Trades Union over new individual contracts that workers are said to have been forced to sign this season and which they say impose punitive conditions.

In an amendment filed yesterday to the remedies sought in its original statement of claim, the union is seeking a declaration the individual agreements were gained in an unlawful lockout, breached the rights of union members under the expired collective agreement, an enquiry into other remedies and monetary compensation arising from the lockout, and a compliance order reinstating their rights under the collective agreement.

The case covers workers at Affco’s Rangiuru, Imlay, and Manawatu plants, but the company has accepted any finding will cover all eight of its North Island plants, of which only Moerewa in Northland is still to open for the season.

The lawyer acting for the company, Paul Wicks QC, said a number of court cases over the years, including the NZ Meat Workers Union versus Richmond in 1992, spelt out that meat workers are employed on a seasonal basis and the employment relationship terminates at the end of each season.

“Given there was no continuous employment, no lockout could have occurred when prospective employees were offered individual contracts for the new season,” he said. “There was no collective agreement in place at the time those offers were made.”

Wicks said nothing he had heard in the union’s submissions distinguished its claim from the Richmond finding or that it should be overturned.

The union argued there were a number of differences between the current case and Richmond, including that the earlier case was based on a statutory award rather than an expired collective agreement, which yielded a different result.

Under the individual contracts offered, Affco met the requirements under the Employment Contracts Act to give those workers the right to bargain on the terms and conditions and they could include the union in that process, Wicks said. “Therefore, no undermining of the union’s authority arises.

“While Affco had some obligations to the workforce employed the previous season at its plants, that did not mean they were in continuous employment or that the company had to offer them the same terms and conditions as before, he said. One of those obligations included notifying them when work was being offered in the new season if they had indicated they were available.”

The new individual contracts contained differences to the previous season’s, which were based on the expired collective contract. Wicks disputed some of the differences outlined in court by the union.

“They’re not identical but it’s not the wholesale removal of rights referred to by the union,” he told the court.

One example was that “seniority is not completely abolished”, he said, though the new contracts do not explicitly use that word. The ability to change workers’ hours was the same as in the expired collective and site agreements along with a requirement to work shifts if instructed.

Some more contentious clauses, such as prohibiting meetings organised by anyone other than the company were removed, Wicks said.

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 three judges on the Employment Court have indicated they may hear both cases before delivering judgement on either.

Wairoa meat workers, who refused to sign individual contracts, appeared in court wearing green union T-shirts emblazoned with “Jobs that Count”.

According to spokesman, Pete Amato, someone has to stand up although desperation has forced around 80 of the original 25 workers to give in and sign the contracts after weeks of holding out, with contention between various families and individuals coming into play over signing under these conditions.

In court Cranney emphasised that an employer bargaining for a collective agreement cannot directly or indirectly bargain with union employees and that it is unlawful to lock employees out when pursuing individual employment agreements.

He added that the company was arguing the worker could not be locked out because they were not employees and the 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.”

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. Chief Employment Court judge, Graeme Collan, dismissed the injunction  but ordered immediate mediation.

You have 7 articles remaining. Unlock 15 free articles a month, it’s free.