Affco should heed Ngapuhi warning

In these tight economic times it is sad to see how the Affco industrial dispute has now lasted for more than 10 weeks, with many workers being locked out since late February. The matter is now before the courts, with the Meat Workers Union bringing a claim seeking to have the February 29 lockout ruled illegal and hundreds of affected workers compensated for lost wages.

There is a lot at stake involving a lot of people, and both sides claim the other is to blame for stalemate. It is estimated that Affco has some 1300 staff, approximately 800 of these being locked out of work. More than 60 per cent of this workforce are estimated to be Maori, many of whom are no doubt suffering economically from the lockout. The Meat Workers Union estimates that some 5000 children of workers may be affected by this issue.

The media recently announced that Ngapuhi leader Sonny Tau had warned Affco that Maori landowners and farmers around the country would boycott Affco meatworks if the company persisted with its anti-union tactics.

Some readers might shrug off such a statement, and write it off as a hollow threat.

But it is interesting to consider that Sonny Tau's statement is actually backed by a significant number of Maori tribal authorities and economic authorities around New Zealand, many of whom contribute a significant amount of stock to New Zealand's meat processing companies, the result of which ultimately ends up on the plates of ordinary New Zealanders or exported internationally.

What most people might not know is that Maori farmers comprise between 10 and 15 per cent of national sheep and beef stock units.

Total numbers of Maori-owned stock units range between 4.2 million and 7.3 million animals.

From a business perspective, this is a lot. Not all of it goes to Affco, but I'm sure enough of it does to make a meaningful contribution to their annual bottom line result. And that result can be positive or negative.

And what many people in New Zealand still don't really understand - including many Maori, surprisingly - is that Maori retain significant scope for growth in our various agribusiness enterprises.

This growth can and will, in time, come from a combination of resuming control of land presently leased out to non-Maori farmers as our own capacity and skills grow and through the development and better use of currently under- utilised land blocks.

Our intergenerational planning horizons, underpinned by our cultural attachment to our remaining ancestral lands, means a significant proportion of our economic potential will always be derived from our land base.

Land sale is generally not an option for Maori agricultural businesses. Land acquisition is.

The increase in size and scale of many Maori agricultural businesses is bringing real aspirations into the full value chain.

And this aspiration is growing at a significant pace as demonstrated by the existence of Miraka Co, the first Maori-owned milk processing plant based in Mokai, which is supplied by a number of large Maori-owned trusts and incorporations.

So coming back to the whole sad situation which opened this opinion piece, if I was a meat processor - or a milk processor, or even a fish processor to think of it - I wouldn't necessarily be dismissing Sonny Tau's message.

And if I was a competitor to Affco, perhaps I would be looking at what opportunity this might bring in terms of developing real relationships with the Maori supply base and the wider whanaunga (relations) who make up a large part of the industry workforce.

As most processing companies understand, there's not much profit in a processing company that doesn't have any product to process.

That scenario just gives you an empty building which is costing you money. If you're in the processing game, be it meat, milk or fish processing, supply is everything, and Maori are a key part of New Zealand's supply chain.

And Maori are increasingly aware that once you have enough of a supply base, you need to ask yourself - do you need to actually sell your commodity to the processor down the road?

Or should you just start your own processing company, like Miraka did, utilising your own supply base and networks and employing your own people and capturing that added value for yourself?

Perhaps in time, we could see a 100 per cent Maori-owned meat processing company being supplied by Maori-owned farms.

This is not a new idea by a long shot - it's been around for a long time - and there are challenges to making it happen.

But that doesn't mean it's not an idea worthy of exploration.

God knows there are plenty of Maori meat workers looking to get back to work right now. Kia kaha ra koutou.

Taranaki Daily News