Workers dismayed as loss of 174 meatworks jobs finalised

SHED STAFF: Silver Fern Farms' Belfast workers  leave a meeting in 2008, after news of job losses. The meat processor said yesterday  more would go.
SHED STAFF: Silver Fern Farms' Belfast workers leave a meeting in 2008, after news of job losses. The meat processor said yesterday more would go.

Silver Fern Farms (SFF) has confirmed 174 jobs will be axed at two Christchurch meatworks, warning further "difficult decisions" would continue to be made.

SFF's management met workers yesterday from its Canterbury lamb- cutting plant in Belfast Rd and the nearby rendering and casings departments on Factory Rd, confirming both plants would close.

SFF had forewarned workers about job cuts two weeks ago and yesterday chief executive Keith Cooper said despite consultation with employees the final decision had been made. The plants' closure was about "streamlining business operations and optimising efficiencies", he said.

"Our actions, whilst tough, are testimony to our commitment to do what we can to improve profitability for our supplier-shareholders," he said.

Most workers have already finished their season at the plants but would have expected to return later in the year. At the Canterbury plant 135 jobs have been cut, with another 39 lost at the Belfast plant.

Cooper said with the industry facing complex challenges, SFF would continue to make the "difficult decisions".

The closure follows a string of large job cuts in Christchurch factories in the past year, including General Cable New Zealand announcing 100 possible jobs losses in March and 275 workers laid off in December at the Bridgestone- Firestone tyre factory. Statistics New Zealand figures show 12,000 people in Christchurch lost their jobs in 2009.

It also comes after SFF announced about 12 jobs would be lost at its Islington meatworks, with the closure of its cold storage operation.

In 2008, SFF cut 1000 jobs across New Zealand, including 250 Christchurch jobs with the closure of the Canterbury sheepmeat plant at Belfast.

Meat Workers' Union Canterbury president Bill Watt said yesterday that some retirement-age workers had treated yesterday's news as a golden handshake, but others were shocked and uncertain about their future.

"Obviously people are a little bit bitter," he said. "They feel that Silver Fern made some mistakes a few years ago when they moved into the North Island (with the purchase of Richmond)."

The industry had faced a tough two years, with sheep numbers falling about 4.4 million, leaving the plants with too little work to remain viable, he said.

A "resource centre" has been set up to help workers find new jobs and SFF would try to absorb some of the jobs into other South Island plants.

But Watt said there were few extra jobs for meatworkers in the Christchurch area and many would have to move to Ashburton or Timaru if they wanted to remain in the industry. "It's a bit of irony that the skills these people have are in demand but just not where they live."

The meat industry in Christchurch had been decimated in the past 15 years as growing urbanisation and dairy conversions had eroded sheep and cattle numbers. "About 15 years ago there were probably 12 (slaughter) chains around the Christchurch area, now there are none."

The Press