Move to create 'voice' for workers

The wool industry is coming together to improve conditions and stem the flow of skilled workers heading overseas. Yvonne O’Hara investigates.

First Union representatives have been working with wool industry stakeholders, workers and employers for the past six months to develop a formal agreement to represent its shearers, woolhandlers and other industry employees.

Transport, Logistics and Manufacturing Division secretary Jared Abbott said union representation was needed as the industry was losing skilled workers.

''The wages had not kept up with overseas [wage] increases.''

''Some employers are undercutting other employers. There is a lack of co-ordinated training, which has left huge gaps in skills and productivity, and many practices have fallen out of touch with current employment laws due to a lack of independent, pro-worker scrutiny.

''We have already signed up a number of workers and are now in talks with the first groups of employers to establish collective agreements,'' Mr Abbott said.

Alexandra shearing contractor Peter Lyon said union representation would be beneficial to the industry.

''It is time wool harvesting industry workers had a voice,'' he said.

''From my point of view it is a positive move but I worry that the people who should be members won't be proactive enough to support it.''

He recalled the New Zealand Workers Union represented industry workers in the early 1990s prior to the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act, which changed the union's power.

''It made it easy for us as businesses as we had a multi-employer collective agreement, but after that they became individual [agreements]'' he said.

He said a union would give contractors some direction as to what rates of pay were fair and reasonable.

One of the key industry issues was attracting young people as many preferred working in towns and there was a perception wages were lower in rural areas.

In addition, the industry needed training programmes and he would also like to see something like a national body, much like the disbanded wool board and levy reintroduced to look after the industry.

Alexandra contractor Dion Morrell said the industry needed ''a voice to be part of the conversation and we need some representation around the table'' to attract young people and retain skilled workers.

''Since there's been no union and no voice for employees, it has been up to contractors and farmers to provide reasonable wages and a good place to work in.

''We are being outbid by Australia and [other industries] within New Zealand.

''Creating a new bottom line will encourage more people back into the industry,'' he said.

He said he usually employed about 100 workers during the busy times and could easily do with another 30 or 40 workers or more if they were available.

New Zealand Shearing Association president Mark Barrowcliffe said the association and the union would ''push forward'' for improved work conditions and remuneration.

''It is important to look after employees as they are the industry's tools.''

The association had recommended a 25% increase in pay and entitlements last year to gain parity with rates paid in Australia.

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