Some 'burnt' when tackling animal neglect

Farmers say employment law can be cumbersome when it comes to dealing with staff who breach animal welfare standards, and are calling for simpler rules.

But advisers say if employers create the right working environment and have sound rules and procedures in place, dealing with such matters can be relatively straightforward.

Federated Farmers employment spokeswoman Katie Milne raised the issue earlier this month after the results came in from a survey of its members.

She said members felt employment law failed when it came to animal welfare issues and some had been ''burnt'' by the system when trying to protect their animals from abuse or neglect.

Almost 20% said they had to dismiss an employee because of an animal welfare issue, and of those, 64% said they paid out the employee because it was easier and less expensive than taking them to court, Ms Milne said.

But if there were no repercussions for the offending, the person could continue to mistreat animals, she saidAbout half of those who responded to the survey thought the employment law was not fair to employers, and 12% thought it was.

''If farmers don't trust or understand the employment law system, then how are they going to protect themselves from employees who are not only killing stock in inhumane ways but behaving aggressively to staff and their employer?'' Ms Milne said.

DairyNZ people team leader Jane Muir said the key difficulty for farmer employers was they were ''caught between'' two laws - the Employment Relations Act and the Animal Welfare Act.

Ms Muir said it was critical sound employment systems; contracts, policies and procedures around animal welfare standards were established at the outset of the employment relationship and the correct processes followed.

If the employment contract specifies an animal welfare breach is serious misconduct punishable by instant dismissal, then that process is there to be followed if necessary, she said.

However, it was important to ''begin the discussion'' with workers even earlier than that. Expectations could be made ''very clear'' at the job interview and Ms Muir said using a skills-based interview would help.

''Create that first sense in the interview that treating animals with kindness is an important value you have.

''Ask them to do a milking ... look for their stock sense. Keep it [animal welfare] at the forefront in staff meetings ... and lead by example.''

Employers could not assume everyone understood what was acceptable and so should spend the time explaining standards in detail and educating staff.

It was time-consuming but would save trouble in the long run if issues had to be dealt with, she said.

''If they [employers] have set that up, they are in a greater position of strength; if they haven't had those discussions their path, will be more complex when it comes to employment law.''As well, the onus was on employers to watch for signs of fatigue and stress in employees, keep them involved and let them know they were valued.

''People in a positive frame of mind are less likely to mistreat animals.''

Those who were fatigued or stressed found it ''easier'' to mistreat animals, especially if they thought it might speed things up, she said.

Canterbury has had more than its share of crises and people, including employers, had needed to step up and do more.

Most people were happy to do that for a while but it was important it not become routine and for employers to remember employment contracts worked both ways, Ms Muir said.

Lincoln University employment relations senior lecturer Rupert Tipples

said, in terms of employment law, the contract should stipulate the highest standard of animal husbandry was required of a worker and it should have ''a neat, concise clause'' which deemed any form of cruelty serious misconduct for which immediate dismissal was the outcome.

If such an occasion should arise, the farmer might prefer to suspend pending investigation, to ''save having to eat humble pie later'', and then follow the process as necessary.

''And there is nothing cumbersome about that.

''Farmers need to get their act together.''

Dr Tipples is conducting a research programme addressing issues of fatigue and the implications for accident rates, poor decision-making and lost productivity.

Often the employer needed to ''go back a stage'' and look at what could have contributed to an animal welfare breach, he said.

They needed to ask whether it had occurred because the individual was innately bad or cruel or was it because the person was fatigued or stressed or under too much pressure and so they took that out on the animals or people around them.

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