By Eric Mischefski - NZ Meat Workers Union Organiser - Hawkes Bay
During the previous 5 weeks isolation under Covid 19, level 4, most meat processing plants and their downstream industries have continued to operate, albeit in reduced capacity, due to protocols around self-distancing and regulations determined by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).
Most of the workers in these facilities adapted and got on with their jobs, acknowledging a degree of risk existed in doing so. A minority of workers were unable to work due to underlying health issues or childcare responsibilities.
The NZ Meat Workers Union (MWU) has been front and centre working with industry players like Ministry for Primary Industries (PI), the Meat Industry Association (MIA) and the government to enable processing to continue.
Work in the meat industry is dirty, dangerous and challenging to many people which, historically, has created issues with recruitment and retention of staff to fill these positions.
During level 4 there were many public accolades for workers in the meat processing industry by farmers, meat processing companies and others acknowledging how MWU members stepped up to the plate and just got on with doing their job.
Several meat companies provided extra income for workers (and some of those in isolation) one company paid a premium of $200 per week for 2 weeks then reduced this to $100, another company gifted a food hamper of meat, vege and other products to their workers, while another donated $100K worth of minced meat to charity groups to help feed the needy in the Waikato.
This paradigm is both interesting and pleasing to witness.
The NZ meat industry has, for many years, struggled to maximise its true potential. Unhealthy competition at the farm gate and in the market place coupled with meat companies having trouble recruiting and retaining good workers have been some of the impediments.
For many years the MWU has championed the idea of bringing industry players together in a forum to discuss and provide solutions to some of these problems.
It is only recently, under the current coalition government that this has gained any currency. MWU on behalf of thousands of workers in this industry has had a voice where the discussions about the future are more sophisticated and go beyond the old regime of cutting wages and increasing the casualisation of this important industry.
What we have all learned is that essential workers go beyond the frontline first responders. There has been a brave effort from MWU members, and to their credit, most Meat Companies to meet the requirements for the meat industry to put food on the table and preserve this important export industry
If it is possible for industry players to come together at a time of crisis it makes perfect sense to continue this and build a more stronger and inclusive environment into the future.
So here is a challenge to all players in our industry : let’s keep the dialogue open. The Meat Industry will likely to continue to be one of the biggest contributors to our export economy.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t big issues ahead, but also big opportunities to work together.
These past few weeks show that a bit of inclusion and acknowledgement of everyone in this important industry, including the MWU show we can get through this together.