This country produces $200 billion of wealth a year. Yet half of adults have incomes less than $29,000 a year. 200,000 kids live in poverty, may in working families. A tiny few – the 1% – pocket the lion’s share. There is no justification. It is bad for society and the economy. Helen Kelly confronts the greed irrational of one rich family, the Talley’s, and how it’s hurting 1,300 poor working families.
How is it that a family-owned company, Talley’s Group, making money from the sea and the land, is able to inflict economic uncertainty on more than 1300 other families? What does it say about the society that makes that lawful?
Is it the ultimate result of colonisation unresolved, that one family, of European origin, is able to determine the economic future of a workforce that is more than 60 per cent Maori and which, for centuries, derived its living from that same sea and land from which the Talley family now make its wealth?
These are tough questions that we will need to answer if we are not to let more than 1300 workers and 5000 children go to the wall as their employer Affco, owned by Talley’s Group, seeks changes to a collective agreement.
In the meatworks, a large part of a worker’s daily pay depends on their team meeting daily tally kill rates, which, in turn, is reliant on the number of people in their team.
Affco wants to have the ultimate ability to determine and change either of these elements – the tally kill number and the team numbers – giving it the ability to reduce workers’ earnings by shifting the goalposts.
It won’t agree to an additional mechanism that protects minimum tally earnings. It has locked most of its unionised workforce out for more than 50 days straight to try to secure this change in the agreement.
Talking to one of these workers at the weekend during a protest in Whanganui, I learned how he had worked for Affco for 30 years, next to his buddy who had been there for 40.
They have shared all life’s ups and downs and believe they may never work together again if the company has its way. They see the union as the only thing that keeps their working life decent and ensures their kids can also work in decent conditions.
Many of these families have exhausted all financial means. They have cashed in their KiwiSavers, frozen their mortgages and got credit card holidays. All these arrangements are coming to an end and they are starting to lose their cars, worry about their houses and realise their retirement will be a poor one.
They can’t understand why the company has to have this “all-or-nothing” approach when it is owned by a family they believe has everything, and doesn’t need any more money. The union movement is fundraising furiously but providing decent support to this number of families is difficult. It is wrong that cleaners and manufacturing workers are donating from their low wages to support these families while the Talley family wants for nothing.
This dispute can only be analysed through a lens other than the dominant market one. A lens where community means something and where there is a bottom line about wealth creation.
That bottom line should include workers having a secure agreement about how their pay is determined. It’s not much to expect.
As the country shows growing outrage at the foreign ownership of land (and I, too, oppose these land sales), a Kiwi family is becoming dominant across the food sector (fish, dairy, agriculture, and meat) which is our primary and most important industry. Yet this lockout and demand to control pay, in my view, disregards the welfare of Affco workers in the most basic of ways.
Unless we have corporate limits, corporate standards and high expectations of those who use the natural resources of the country, then the outlook is grim regardless of who owns the companies or land that creates the wealth.
We need a new social contract. We need modern employer organisations prepared to take a stand for decent work and against companies like Affco. We need stronger labour laws that protect workers like the ones involved in this dispute.
It was revealing last week when those in high places finally expressed outrage at the behaviour of the Port of Auckland – not when it planned to sack everyone, but only when it breached workers’ privacy.
The moral compass of these groups is pointing the wrong way. It needs to be swung around.
The implications for the families and communities of Whanganui, Wairoa, Moerewa, Rangiuru and Horutiu if the Talley family are able to win without account, are generational. All of New Zealand needs to think about the future of work, given the current norm is to accept this type of behaviour as good business.
Locked out families will travel to the Nelson region on May 6 to try to meet the Talley family. They have a feeling the family might appreciate their situation if they talk to them about who they are, and their ambitions for their kids and grandkids.
They are hoping that when families meet face to face, there is still room to build a community of common understanding and respect.
Helen Kelly is president of the Council of Trade Unions.