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16 January 2012

Clean, green & nice to the workers


Most New Zealand food and fibre exporters market their products as clean, green and animal friendly. But are their products worker-friendly too?

It's not a silly question. It raised its head in the recent industrial dispute involving ANZCO, one of our biggest meat processors and marketers. It's also highly topical in the fishing industry, where the spotlight is on working conditions in foreign charter vessels.

Thirty years ago, clean green positioning was a new concept promoted by a few edgier marketers. Today it's almost universal among NZ exporters and many of their overseas competitors.

When selling propositions become ‘me too' they tend to become meaningless or, in the hands of some, the hollow slogans known as greenwashing.

Hence the growing trend toward ‘ethical', ‘responsible' and ‘sustainable' sourcing policies by major food, furniture and stationery retailers in important markets. These go way beyond fuzzy notions of clean and green. Basically, buyers are looking for products that are produced without harm to the environment, to animals and to people. And ideally with audit trails to prove it.

Once you start crossing borders, determining what's ethical when it comes to employment relations boggles the mind. Clearly slave and forced labour are no-nos. But once rules go much beyond that, there's a huge potential for protectionist trade barriers and cultural conflict.

Because of these difficulties, most ethical procurement policies are not very specific when it comes to the fair treatment of workers in the supply chain. But this doesn't mean retailers aren't watching.     

The Waitrose supermarket chain in the UK, for example, publicly expressed its unease about ANZCO's use of a lock-out to force unionised workers at its Feilding plant onto individual contracts. The ANZCO lockout began in October and was not settled until the week before Christmas.

On Facebook, Waitrose said:  "We have strongly encouraged the producer in question and indeed both sides in this dispute in NZ to continue with the mediation process to reach a fair conclusion that is satisfactory to both parties."

The ANZCO strategy was risky. Like all big brands and high-end retailers around the world, Waitrose is committed to being socially responsible. It also happens to be owned by an employee partnership.

According to the Waitrose website, "Treating people fairly" is part of "the Waitrose way". "Through our responsible sourcing programme we monitor how suppliers are meeting our expectations and, where problems occur, we work with suppliers to improve labour standards and worker welfare."

ANZCO didn't enter the dispute lightly. But its operating profit in 2010 was only $406,000 on sales of $1.16 billion. Clearly, it couldn't keep propping up its subsidiary CMP (Canterbury Meat Packers) Rangitikei Limited - an operation that has reportedly never made a profit.

But ANZCO did itself no favours by refusing to publicly debate its actions or their rationale until CMP general manager Darryl Mackenzie released an open letter to "our community" on 10 December. [See document link below.]

Until then, coverage of the lockout in both the conventional and social media was overwhelmingly pro-union, because the union and its members were the only ones actively communicating.

Ironically the ANZCO website says the company is committed to "honesty when communicating with our stakeholders ... the transparency with which we deal with people ... this is the way that ANZCO Foods always conducts itself." It also claims that "Looking after our people is our top priority." 

WHAM has no special expertise in industrial relations, but in the world of social media exporters need to be mindful that industrial disputes at home can rapidly become an embarrassment for their customers overseas.

ANZCO has a reputation as a switched-on meat marketer, but its approach to communications during the dispute indicated that it hadn't included a social media strategy in its communications planning. We also note that neither ANZCO or CMP have media contacts on their websites. Nor is the management team, apart from chairman Sir Graeme Harrison, named. They don't have a Facebook presence and don't answer their on-line critics.

These shortcomings could be addressed at little cost. In the meantime, they pose unnecessary risks to the company's reputation.


- Trevor Walton

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