Nearly half meatworks' staff will be laid off

Wellington, Dec 6 NZPA - About 160 of the 350 workers at Silver Fern Farms' Waikato beef slaughter plant at Te Aroha are likely to only be paid a minimum wage until Christmas.

The remaining 190 workers will be offered full-time work at the company's Pacific plant at Hastings, 316km away in Hawke's Bay, where the company will start up a night shift.

"We are offering 190 positions at our Pacific plant in Hastings, on full pay plus an accommodation allowance," said chief executive Keith Cooper. "This will create a positive opportunity for the majority of our Te Aroha people."

Mr Cooper and Silver Fern Farms chairman Eoin Garden today met some of the affected workers, and the chief executive said the mood of the meeting was "sombre".

"They need certainty about income for their families — especially three weeks out from Christmas," he said. "They are employed under seasonal contracts, which means that if work is not available, they are seasonally 'laid off'."

The Te Aroha meatworks — which processes 100,000 animals a year — was razed by a fire late on Friday night which took about 20 fire engines and 70 firefighters to bring under control.

Investigators think the plant, about 5km south of Te Aroha, was set alight by sparks from a saw being used by a contractor to cut through exterior cladding to install a condenser on Friday afternoon, said Waikato district fire safety officer Kevin Holmes.

"It appears that the saw generated some sparks which began smouldering in the polystyrene interior," he said.

The fire was reported to spread along the polystyrene sandwich board panels with large parts of the building collapsing as the panels were burned out.

Mr Cooper said the people who failed to gain jobs in Hastings would be paid their normal weekly earnings for this week, and the minimum wage up to Christmas. About 100 of the workers live 20km north of Te Aroha at Paeroa.

The company had 7000 staff in 19 other meatworks and would process the livestock that would normally be sent to the Te Aroha plant by increasing capacity at its Pacific, Dargaville and Hawera plants.

The additional capacity being brought on at Silver Fern Farms' other plants would enable the company to largely absorb livestock that would have been processed at Te Aroha, at least in the short-term basis.

Business interruption insurance cover would largely compensate any negative impact on the business.

Mr Garden said Silver Fern Farms would continue to require a meatworks near Te Aroha.

Mr Cooper said the decision to rebuild was at least two months away, and if it went ahead it would take at least four to six months.

Industry observers expect the new plant to be "state-of-the-art", built with extensive automation.

Silver Fern's joint venture company, Robotic Technologies Ltd, has already commercialised a system using X-ray technology and robotic cutting equipment to automatically separate lamb legs, fore and middle portions with a robotic boning machine to bone lamb legs, reducing labour costs.

- Content provided to you by NZPA

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