Labour Day marks the struggle for an eight-hour working day. New Zealand workers were among the first in the world to claim this right when, in 1840, the carpenter Samuel Parnell won an eight-hour day in Wellington. Today, what does this mean for Meat Workers?
Meat Workers are mostly seasonally employed workers. That means they are laid off when stock is low and (in most cases) re-employed when the season starts up again. The majority of union collective agreements in the industry recognise this by ensuring a system known as "seniority", which protects competent workers who have made the commitment to return to work each season.
This system works for employers, workers, communities and the industry as a whole. It gives workers some certainty and encourages them to keep building and utilising their skill in this important export industry, rather than taking it elsewhere. It provides employers with the ability to continue to employ skilled, competent workers in an industry where training costs and health & safety risks would be huge without it. It helps small rural communities by keeping families in the area, their kids going to school and local businesses able to build up local support. And it helps our number two export industry ensure that our products are safe, healthy and compliant.
But some employers want to gain a competitive advantage by watering down "seniority" systems. They use lay-offs as punishment, and a way of weeding out what they see as union troublemakers. Workers are laid off, with a "don't call us, we'll call you" approach, leaving them sitting around in between seasons either reliant on (increasingly hard to obtain) government assistance, or giving up and going elsewhere.
This is a problem for the whole industry. And its something we need to tackle.
We can follow the race to the bottom that we see in other countries, where temporary labour hire workers and vulnerable migrants now staff their abattoirs, or we can stand together and say, in New Zealand, that's not good enough.