Joint plan aims to address labour market problems

A tripartite working group, led by the Department of Labour and Meat Industry Association, was established two years ago to produce the Meat Industry Labour Market and Skills Plan, having recognised what it termed a two dimensional problem: first, the dominant culture of independence and competitiveness which means a lack of engagement across the industry, second, the difficulty of bringing about new behaviours to increase industry viability, productivity, health and safety and wealth creation.

If this seems a little removed from the business of farming, it is actually totally relevant to the skilful, timely and profitable processing of farmers’ livestock for export and domestic sale. The Plan’s vision – ‘a profitable, cooperative value network for the meat industry and people that is able to secure its markets by guaranteeing consistent quality, safety, sustainability and value’ – underlines its relevance to the farmer.

The major issues the plan seeks to address are recruitment, retention and productivity with particular priorities for action identified as developing a flexible, industry-wide career pathway for skilled staff, incorporating best workplace practices, and reducing the uncertainty of seasonal employment. Farmers are seen as having a key role to play in the recommended value network analysis because, with ownership of 100% of the livestock and 60% of the processing capacity, they represent the single largest leverage point in the industry. However the relationship between farmer and processor appears to be more a matter for the sector strategy than the labour market plan.

The meat industry has several characteristics which make this plan extremely important for the development of the workforce of the future. The meat industry employs about 24,000 workers across nearly 70 plants, about 1% of the whole national workforce, but it is an ageing workforce with the percentage over 40 rising from 48% to 53% between 2001 and 2006 which may well have increased further since then. Meat workers have a lower level of educational qualification, more specifically lower literacy and numeracy than the average for the country’s workforce as a whole. There is a higher rate of staff turnover, nearly 25% per year compared with 17% for all industries, while 67% of voluntary resignations had worked in the meat industry for less than a year. Meat workers also earn less than the average worker in other industries and less than their Australian counterpart.

The biggest factor immediately apparent from any study of the meat industry’s labour market is the impact of seasonality, particularly in the south where workers can generally look forward to a maximum of seven months employment. This one industry characteristic is responsible for many of the meat industry’s workforce problems: the low annual pay, high worker turnover, recruitment difficulty, ageing workforce and seniority effect where longer term employees gain first re-employment rights; furthermore the social costs of out of work seasonal meat workers combined with health and safety issues mean government departments like the Department of Labour and WINZ have a strong interest in developing new strategies for the labour market.

One of the big positives from the labour market plan has been the substantial level of cooperation between government agencies, local government development units and meat companies, especially in the far south where Alliance, AGITO, Work and Income and Venture Southland have worked together to identify options in different industries, both seasonal and year round, for seasonal meat workers to gain employment outside the meat processing season. After a trial in late 2009, the programme has been extended across three provincial regions, Otago and South Canterbury in addition to Southland, to create new job opportunities in a project being conducted during the 2010 off season. The long term goal is to establish 800-1000 jobs for employees willing to work as ‘permanent seasonal’ workers.

Trials are also underway to streamline and depoliticise the immigrant worker scheme, originally introduced to the horticultural sector, so in case of New Zealand worker shortages migrant workers can be engaged at short notice.

While the Meat Workers Union would like to see quicker action, there are pockets of progress which will gather pace and contribute to solving a difficult problem.

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