Affco New Zealand says seasonal meat workers sign fixed-term contracts, so cannot be said to have been locked out if they don't sign fresh contracts at the start of a new season.
Affco is presenting its statement of defence at the Employment Court in Auckland in a dispute with New Zealand Meat and Related Trades Union over new individual contracts that workers are said to have been forced to sign this season and which they say impose punitive conditions.
The union is seeking a declaration the individual agreements were gained in an unlawful lockout and breached the rights of union members under the expired collective agreement.
The case covers workers at Affco's Rangiuru, Imlay and Manawatu plants but the company has accepted any finding will cover all eight of its North Island plants, of which only Moerewa in Northland is still to open for the season.
Paul Wicks QC, acting for the company, said today that a number of court cases spelt out that meat workers are employed on a seasonal basis and the employment relationship terminates at the end of each season.
Given there was no continuous employment, no lockout could have occurred when prospective employees were offered individual contracts for the new season, he said.
There was no collective agreement in place at the time those offers were made.
Mr Wicks said Affco's individual contracts met statutory requirements to give workers the right to bargain on terms and conditions, and they could include the union in that process.
"Therefore, no undermining of the union's authority arises," he said.
The new individual contracts contained differences to the previous season's, "but it's not the wholesale removal of rights referred to by the union," he told the court.
A second Employment Court hearing is set down for November, claiming Affco walked away from negotiations on the collective contract that expired in 2013.
The company became the first under the Government's new employment law to apply for an end to bargaining.
The three judges on the Employment Court have indicated they may hear both cases before delivering judgment on either.