Fairton ‘was doomed’

Photo Sue Newman

Before you judge Silver Fern Farms or the declining stock numbers or the workforce, take a minute to consider these facts, historical events and the inter-generational dedication of the district’s men and women for almost 120 years.

Going back some years when Charlotte Stephens took over from Joe Butchard as the new manager of the Fairton plant, she inherited a workforce that had pride and efficiency in their mind-set.

It came from having long seasons of work, a management structure which strived to be continuously financially prudent, and a healthy working relationship with union secretary Darcy Lysaght which enabled an environment of mutual respect and a willingness to overcome issues.

Fairton was close to the top of the pecking order within the SFF group in many of the key performance indicators (KPIs).

The plant and machinery was maintained to under budget to an exceptional standard by a highly skilled team.

Fairton was smashing it out there and everyone was on board for the ride with a combined vision of productivity and quality.

Back then, the stable experienced, workforce was a huge asset in an industry where employee churn/turnover was the norm.

SFF wanted to grab a huge market share of the ever increasing bobby calf market and came to the union with a proposal for the bobby calf season only.

Farmers were offered a seven-day pick up and seven-day kills, but without the current overtime payments that were within the employment contract.

So it was to do away with some allowances and double time and work a six-day roster with payments in the weekends capped at time and a half.

Some allowances were also to be dropped and the start times would be variable.

The union resolved that all stock would be killed each day regardless of numbers. The union got agreement from the workers and it went ahead.

Some workers that season worked six weeks straight and some were doing 14 days on one day off, in an industry where physicality is the norm.

Then next year SFF came again with another proposal – they wanted a later start time of up to 10am and to drop allowances for travel and meal monies and a 2 per cent decrease in holiday pay that was in the agreement.

The union got agreement from the workforce and the calf season went ahead.

The next year SFF management came back with a proposal to start at midday and finish somewhere around 9pm or later, and to drop all remaining allowances.

The union asked for all possible changes management had on the plate; the latest start times and any other compromises required of workers to make, to avoid coming each year with changes that drove frustration and angst in the workforce.

The response was the midday start would be the last request.

Again the union sought and got agreement from the workers and it went ahead.

Early in the following year and new brat on the block for SFF Jason Graham reared his head and reputation to try and rewrite all agreements on the calf kill contract and do away with up to 23 different clauses – seniority, sick pay and working hours could be interrupted each day with up to a three-hour wait for a stock truck to arrive with no pay, decreased numbers working on the chain and speed increased above the industry practice.

This equated to longer working days for less pay in all departments, different start times each day and all overtime rates cut.

So Graham’s wish list went on.

Not only were the various departmental union delegates disgusted at the proposal but the manager was a reluctant player.

We later found out she had little faith in ever being able to get agreement when the existing workers had done everything asked of them.

Stephens resigned with a word of warning; the SFF culture had changed.

We knew the game was changing, but why?

Like clockwork, management returned with yet another proposal the following season, this time proposing a 2pm start time and no overtime in the weekends meaning a flat pay rate for all.

The threat was agree or we take the bobby kill to Pareora.

Fairton, Pareora and Finegand in Balclutha all voted together as we are all in the same collective.

The thinking was to present the total vote to SFF so they couldn’t play favourites or one plant against another.

Over 98 per cent against the proposal.

The vote was presented and the calf kill went to Pareora.


The next season had changed Fairton started later and finished earlier, a penalty for not agreeing and SFF’s way of trying to force the workers financially into agreement for future proposals.

Someone had made the decision to move production to Pareora not just for the calf but also the lamb, and not just them as now Finegand was having a longer season at Fairton’s expense.

In that year Fairton lost 35 weeks of work over two chains.

Pareora and Finegand gained 35 weeks.

The game had changed and a new behind the scenes game was being played, and we knew then that it was all over bar the fighting.

We believe that SFF had already made the decision to close Fairton and to reduce its redundancy liability; if the short seasons would force many workers to look for other employment.

The following year (2015-16), no overtime was offered until day six and the 2pm start time remained on the table.

We were told, if we didn’t agree and even if Pareora didn’t agree to the new terms, the calves would still go to Pareora.

That confirmed our suspicions were correct. SFF was trying to screw the Fairton workers to get concessions in their employment agreement, then play one plant off against another.

And when they had finished, close Fairton.

But what they didn’t count on was the guts and pride in the Fairton workforce.

We weren’t going to agree to something so you could screw the other plants even though it would mean a longer season.

We gave them the bird loud and clear and stood proud. We held the line, despite the views of others in the community.

We knew we were right as far back as four years ago; Fairton was doomed.

The maintenance team had their budgets cut to the wire and any work costed at over $500 required approval from SFF head office in Dunedin.

That year unbelievably SFF went back to Pareora with a revised offer; leave overtime as it is, a holiday increase of 2 per cent as per the old agreement and a 2pm start time.

This completely opposed the deal originally put to the Fairton workers.

In short it was off the table for Fairton.

Pareora agreed and processed the calf kill.

In that same environment the merger with Shanghai Maling entered the picture. Winston Peters told us all that SFF was proposing to close Fairton and Waitane to increase profit margins.

SFF denied it.

Did they blatantly mislead or lie, some would say so, we couldn’t possibly agree.

They still went ahead after the deal was planned and shed over 350 jobs at Mossburn, Frasertown in Wairoa, Islington deer plan, Canterbury Cold stores and the second chain at Fairton.

And when the axe fell this week 360 jobs went down the gurgler – that’s 500 for Fairton of the 770 jobs SFF/ Shanghai Mailing has shed in the past year.

We have yet to see how the country or its people have benefited from that merger.

It certainly hasn’t started well has it?

What has the Dean Hamilton-led SFF done in its tenure?

What they are good at is closing plants when others in the industry are taking the market share from under the company’s nose.

Under his tenure SFF South Island has leaked market share while the likes of Alliance, ANZCO and Talleys are ripping it up with both profit and volume.

When is the Hamilton-led SFF/Shanghai Mailing going to perform?

Maybe when it realises it’s massively top heavy with a new middle management structure that costs over $1.9 million a year to run, when a couple of years ago it didn’t exist!!

Maybe it’s a culture of extravagance that goes to Hamilton’s salary of over $1.6 million a year – that’s more than the wage bill at one of the plants!

So now it will have a two-plant structure in the South Island being driven by a glass corporate office staffed by over 130 people.

When the culture at SFF changed so did its soul.

Good bye Fairton, it was nice knowing you.

Fairton Freezing Workers