The Meat Workers Union says changes to New Zealand’s employment law would let them prevent Talleys-owned meat processor Affco from barring unions and taking bargaining to court, a tactic which costs the workers’ advocate half a million dollars a year in legal fees.

The Employment Relations Amendment Bill, which is currently being heard by a parliamentary select committee, would drop changes made by the previous government to key minimum standards and protections for employees, including restricting the use of 90-day trials to employers with fewer than 20 employees, and would strengthen collective bargaining and union rights in the workplace.

The union and Affco have been tied up in the courts for years, with the meat processor the first company to apply for an end to bargaining under legislative changes introduced in 2015. These let firms opt out of multi-employer agreements and removed the duty under good faith bargaining for both sides to reach a deal. Affco mounted continuous legal challenges but was rejected by every court, with the Supreme Court finding in September that the meat processor unlawfully locked out meat workers when collective bargaining was taking place.

Since 2012, the litigation has cost the union about $500,000 per year, the union’s director of organising Darien Fenton told the select committee this morning.

“We’re up against a $300 million company, and we don’t believe they should have the competitive advantage of treating their workers the way they do. It undercuts everybody, it creates a race to the bottom.”

Fenton says the new bill isn’t radical legislation, just re-setting to previous conditions and removing an uneven playing field. She rejects claims the bill will lead to further strikes, saying the meat industry hasn’t had a strike since 1999.

“The only radical industrial action we’ve seen in the meat industry in the last 10 years has been the unlawful lockouts by Affco Talleys, and there’s been several of them.

“In the rest of the meat industry we have good relationships. We have collective agreements right across the industry, we have thousands of members, we have regular negotiations and we haven’t had a strike in years,” Fenton says.

“The union has had to spend a lot of members’ resources – and these are not wealthy members, these are people working seasonal jobs out in small towns who are lucky sometimes if they get to work six months in the year. We’ve had to use their funds to mount a legal defence against one company. You might like to ask a question about why that is.”

Last week, Affco made a submission to the select committee, in which it opposed the bill, saying it “takes away employer flexibility, seeks to force common provisions and terms and conditions on all parties, excessively complicates the process for determining a new employees’ terms and conditions, undermines health and safety obligations and otherwise hinders efficiency, productivity and the employees’ own working success.”

National Party MP Scott Simpson said Affco had told the committee the industry had seen a “rapid rate of automation” over the past 10 or 20 years, and if the bill is passed, they may automate further to continue to deliver returns to shareholders.

However, the union’s national secretary Graham Cooke denies there had been rapid automation so far. He says automation wasn’t that simple in the meat industry, though he accepted it will eventually happen.

Cooke says Affco is the only company in the industry to restrict union access, and union density in all Affco plants had dropped to 10 percent by last year from 95 percent in 2010.

The select committee’s report on the bill is due by August 1, after which it will have its second reading.

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