Sanford denies Timaru move is to escape paying living wage

Bluff Community Board chairman Ray Fife says Sanford decided to relocate its white fish operations to Timaru after workers demanded a living wage.
Kavinda Herath/STUFF
Bluff Community Board chairman Ray Fife says Sanford decided to relocate its white fish operations to Timaru after workers demanded a living wage.

One of New Zealand's biggest seafood companies has rejected claims it moved jobs from Bluff to Timaru to avoid paying its workers the living wage. 

Sanford's decision to restructure its fish processing operations across the South Island resulting in job losses in Bluff is under fire from advocacy group Living Wage and community groups who believe the move to Timaru has given the company an easy way out of paying the living wage.

Bluff Community Board chairman Ray Fife claimed Sanford, which is a Sustainability and Environmental Award finalist in South Canterbury's 2019 Business Excellence Awards, had decided to relocate its white fish operations to Timaru only after workers demanded to be paid the living wage which is $21.15 per hour against the minimum wage of $17.70.

Julian Maze believes Sanford can afford to pay its staff the living wage.
Julian Maze believes Sanford can afford to pay its staff the living wage.

"When staff in Bluff initiated collective bargaining and asked for a living wage, the announcement of layoffs followed soon after," he said. 

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"The fishing company's decision to lay off 17 staff in Bluff left the small working-class community reeling, with few other jobs available."

Sanford's factory at Timaru port.
Sanford's factory at Timaru port.

Fife said laid off staff would now be forced to seek work in Invercargill, which is about 30km away, and on Stewart Island.

Sanford's chief people officer, Karen Duffy, denied there was any ulterior motive in moving its white fish operations from Bluff to Timaru.

"Sanford's decision to consolidate the white fish operations in the South Island in Timaru and create a centre of excellence for salmon in Bluff has nothing to do with wage levels or any current wage negotiations. The two things were not linked in any way. 

"We had been facing a number of factors which were limiting the flow of white fish into Bluff for processing. Those factors included changing customer requirements for portions and changes in demand from export markets for certain types of fish." 

Duffy said the company could see the flow of white fish into Bluff would continue to decline and made the decision to consolidate its operations to Timaru, but it was forced to retrench staff while doing so. 

"Sadly in this process we did have to reduce the number of people we employ in Bluff and it has been a very emotional time as we have said our goodbyes. However in the longer term, we see a very positive picture in Bluff as we carefully grow our Stewart Island salmon farm over the next few years."

Duffy said Sanford could not comment on wage levels at the moment as the company was in the middle of negotiations with union representatives and "a good faith requirement of that process is that we make no specific comments in public".

"Our aim at Sanford is to be an employer of choice and wages are a part of this picture."

South Canterbury Living Wage Movement regional secretary Julian Maze said the living wage is independently calculated every year by the New Zealand Family Centre Social Policy Unit and refers to the minimum pay required to participate fully in community life, not just pay for necessities. 

"The 2019 rate is set at $21.15 per hour, but some Sanford employees receive as little as $17.70 per hour."

Maze said the company should become a living wage employer if it expected community support for its plans.

"Sanford's reputation in the community will improve if they pay people enough to lift their families out of working poverty," he said.

"We all deserve to live with dignity and respect, and we should be able to afford to do so whether we work on a production line, a fishing vessel or in a corporate boardroom."

Maze said Sanford made an after-tax profit in the most recent financial year of $22.9 million and is expanding operations in several areas around New Zealand.

"This leaves it with no excuse not to pay $21.15 an hour as this will not only help the workers but the community around its plants."

The Timaru Herald