Meatworkers who spent five months locked out of work last year have won their battle with employer Affco, with the Court of Appeal agreeing the lockout was illegal.
Last November, the Employment Court found that the company locked the Wairoa workers out unlawfully and without the required notice, and that it undermined the collective bargaining process by sidelining the Meat Workers Union.
In its decision issued this morning, the Court of Appeal said it was obvious Affco's objective was to undermine or compromise the negotiations by isolating individual workers from the union and weakening the union's bargaining power.
"The company's purpose was to fragment the future bargaining strength of the workforce by isolating individual workers. By this means it took advantage of the inherent inequality of its relationship with the seasonal workers who were members of its captive workforce and to whom it owed existing duties to offer re-employment," it said.
The decision said laws against unlawful lockouts must be extended to seasonal workers, even when they were unemployed, if their contracts said they had the right to be offered re-employment.
Ruling a win for workers' rights - union
The Meat Workers Union said it hoped Affco would pay attention to the new court ruling.
The union's national secretary, Graham Cooke, said it was a win for workers' rights, and the people who were locked out should be paid for the time they were out of work.
"I have never experienced a company treat their workforce like this company is treating these workers.
"Their whole drive is to get everyone onto individual employment agreements that are completely inferior to the conditions of employment that they used to work on," Mr Cooke said.
Mr Cooke said he held little hope this ruling would make much difference because Affco had interpreted previous court rulings to its own liking.
"They hold those families to ransom, and that's the part I find very difficult to live with," he said.
"I just cannot see why an employer would exploit a workforce to this degree. It's not as though they're paid highly, it's not as though they're paid more than any other meatworker around New Zealand," he said.
Justin Kaimoana - the shed secretary at Wairoa - said the fight took a long time, but was worth it.
"We didn't make this stand just for us, just for now," he said. "We made it for our fathers, our grandfathers who stood up for the union back in the heyday of meatworkers and for the future. For our kids who decide they want to make a career out of being a meatworker."
Mr Kaimoana said the individual contracts Affco offered threatened to divide his small town, pitting the union members against the non-union members, while only the company would make money.
Affco denies trying to undermine union
Affco executive director Dane Gerrard said the company thought it was adhering to the Employment Relations Act throughout the negotiations.
Despite the Court of Appeal saying it was obvious Affco's objective was to undermine the union, Mr Gerrard said those accusations were unfounded.
He said Affco was the primary employer in many of the small towns where it has processing plants, and unless Affco could ensure its own survival - through more flexible contracts - it would not remain competitive, and would not be around to give those people work.
Mr Gerrard said he was meeting with his senior colleagues this afternoon to discuss the outcome of the case, including the matter of a possible final appeal.
Workers did not properly return until February
The dispute between the company and its workers dates back to December 2013, when a collective contract expired.
It came to a head late last year after 150 workers who refused to return on individual contracts were locked out for five months.
The Employment Court's November ruling ordered the company to allow the workers to return, but they discovered that they had not been re-employed on their original contracts.
The ongoing dispute meant the workers did not properly return to the Wairoa plant until this February.
The Court of Appeal said the Employment Court had erred on a separate question of law, relating to the termination of the workers' contracts at the end of each season.
The Employment Court had said Affco engaged the seasonal meatworkers on employment agreements of indefinite duration. That was found to be false on appeal.
But that matter had little bearing on the illegality of the lockout, the Court of Appeal said.