Bread shortage looms as bakery staff go on strike

George Weston brands include Ploughmans and Tip Top.
George Weston brands include Ploughmans and Tip Top. Photo credit: Facebook/supplied

Next time you can't find the bread you want at the supermarket, it might not be because others are stocking up and panic buying.

One of the country's biggest bread suppliers is facing strike action after failing to reach a pay agreement with its employees.

George Weston Foods, part of multinational company Associated British Foods, makes Tip Top, Bürgen, Ploughman’s, Big Ben, Golden and Bazaar brands. Nearly 100 workers at its bakeries in Otahuhu and Wiri have - according to their employer - "acted irresponsibly" by calling a strike "during a COVID lockdown while negotiations are continuing".

It follows a walkout on Friday when FIRST Union members "walked off the job at the end of the shift without commencing clean-down of the equipment or surfaces".

"Not cleaning during a pandemic impacts the safety of our people," said general manager baking division Mark Bosomworth, saying it would cut bread supplies to Auckland supermarkets by nearly a third. "These strikes during a lockdown are irresponsible and an attempt to exploit a pandemic for political gain."

Bosomworth said George Weston had employed "contract and temporary staff" to cover the shortfall, accusing FIRST Union of "attempting to hold the entire food supply chain to ransom by exercising a labour monopoly". 

He said they've offered workers a 5 percent increase in pay over the first year and 3 percent the second which he says would put all workers above the living wage. 

FIRST Union told Newshub Bosomworth and George Weston were spreading "misinformation" about the union's position.

"Currently the company pays 12 cents above the minimum wage," spokesperson Jared Abbott said.

"Workers have not attempted to disrupt the supply chain, they have simply elected not to work more than 45 hours per week during a pandemic where they have been required to work excessive hours for less than they can afford to live off.

"If the company used the money they have invested in their PR firm -  attempting to discredit workers’ right to refuse overtime - into wages, then this situation wouldn’t even exist."

But Bosomworth said it wasn't true that the company pays workers 12 cents above the minimum wage.

"The '12 cents above minimum wage' refers to the rate for level 1 (apprenticeship bakers). The company doesn't have anyone on that level, so the offer on the table will pay above living wage for all current workers," he said.

The union wants all staff to receive at least the living wage, set at $22.75. It acknowledged that 2019's strike action resulted in a nationwide bread shortage.

Bosomworth said Auckland bread lovers should "act responsibly and not panic buy" so there's enough to go around and no repeat this year. The South Island and lower North Island should remain unaffected, supplied by the Christchurch bakery.