110 jobs at risk as Silver Fern Farms looks to close two processing plants

Silver Fern Farms CEO Dean Hamilton.

Silver Fern Farms CEO Dean Hamilton.

More than 100 jobs are at risk if Silver Fern Farms closes two meat processing sites - a mutton plant at Wairoa affecting 67 workers, and a venison operation at Mossburn in Southland, affecting 43. 

The axing of the jobs at Mossburn would leave a hole in the community, locals have said, although SFF has stressed there would not be an actual reduction in jobs. 

Workers who wanted to retain employment would have to relocate. Staff were being given the option to transfer to other nearby sites, SFF chief executive Dean Hamilton said.

"With changing livestock flows, there is the opportunity for the company to become more efficient and offer our farmer suppliers improved service by operating fewer plants for longer during a season.  

"Both plants operate in regions where we have other plants which can manage the combined levels of livestock processing in the region," Hamilton said.

Employees at Mossburn are being given options to work at the company's Waitane, Kennington or Finegand sites. Frasertown employees will have the option of transferring to Takapau or Pacific in the Central Hawke's Bay. 

NZ Meatworkers Union national secretary Graham Cooke said the alternative plants were a long way from the existing sites. Pacific was two hours' drive away, and Takapau even further. Kennington, the closest plant to Mossburn, is just over an hour distant.

A Silver Fern Farms spokesman said some workers at the plants earmarked for closure already worked at the sites they were being directed to. 

Southland District councillor John Douglas, who represents the Mararoa Waimea ward, said while the closure of the site had been discussed for some time, it was devastating for the community and the families involved.

"We're basically devastated because it has been a big employer of the town and it dates back to when they first shot deer."

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The initial helicopter hunting of wild deer turned into deer farming in the northern Southland town, where New Zealand's first deer farm was established in 1972.

However, in the past decade a change in land use from drystock farming to dairy had resulted in a drop in deer numbers in the area, Douglas said.

"It's just a function of numbers really, as dairy numbers have grown, deer numbers have decreased."

Douglas said the 43 Mossburn workers came from throughout northern Southland, meaning the effect of workers leaving towns or finding alternate work would be "quite considerable and a negative one at that".

"I think as a community we have to rally around them [the workers] and give them the support that they so desperately need."

He hoped Silver Fern Farms (SFF) would consider alternate uses for the plant, including processing bobby calves.

Cooke said that to SFF's credit, the co-op wanted to retain the skills of its workers.

"We have a good working relationship with SFF, they have notified us at head office this would happen, but there is a clause that says they have to consult with workers first to give them options," Cooke said.

He doubted if older workers or ones with families would easily be able to move.

Even though venison was experiencing a resurgence in consumer demand, stock numbers had diminished over recent years and farmers were only starting to rebuild herds. At the moment it was difficult for venison workers to get enough work to survive. 

Federated Farmers Southland president Allan Baird said the decision to closure Mossburn, over the venison processing plant in Kennington likely came down to logistics.

It would likely be easier to align transport distribution from State Highway 1, rather than Mossburn which serviced Fiordland, and central and northern Southland, he said.

NZ First leader Winston Peters said many in the rural community would now be waking up to understand what the deal with Shanghai Maling really meant. 

"Now families and the communities of Mossburn and Wairoa will suffer.

"Giving workers the option of travelling to work at other plants is not practicable since they are too far away from the plants earmarked for closure," Peters said. 

 - Stuff


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