Union accuses bread supplier George Weston of 'slavery', but company says they turned down pay hikes

A union representative for staff at one of the country's biggest bakery companies has accused their employer of "slavery", amid a bitter dispute over pay and working conditions. 

Members of FIRST Union at George Weston Foods' bakeries in Ōtāhuhu and Wiri have been taking industrial action, saying they're underpaid and working long hours. George Weston - part of multinational company Associated British Foods - says they've been offered pay increases that would take them above the living wage of $22.75 an hour, and further action will threaten Auckland's bread supply.

"They're using the pandemic as an opportunity to disrupt supply," George Weston general manager of baking Mark Bosomworth told Newshub on Friday. George Weston makes bread sold under the Tip Top, Bürgen, Ploughman’s, Big Ben, Golden and Bazaar brands.

"We've already offered all of the workers at our sites the living wage in year one - that's a 5 percent pay increase in year one, and a 3 percent pay increase in year two... it's astonishing… They saw this offer of mediation this week and turned it down flatly." 

Jared Abbott of FIRST Union told The AM Show earlier on Friday the union hadn't seen any offer with pay rises that generous.

"It's not true, and if it was then that would be great - we could probably have a quick resolution to this… We have actually written to them and said, 'Can you please just send us the offer you're talking about on the radio? Because it's not what you've given to us.'"

Abbott said the offer they've seen would leave 20 percent of the staff still below the living wage. The company has rejected this, showing Newshub a chart which showed zero employees would be below the living wage after the first year of pay hikes.

Abbott also disputed the company's claims the industrial action would disrupt the supply of bread in Auckland, which is currently under alert level 3 pandemic restrictions. 

"I think the company have actually tried to stir up some media by engaging a PR firm and putting out over-the-top and quite misleading media to probably try and get people to panic-buy," he said.

"All that's happening is these workers are saying they're not going to work more than 45 hours a week, which is their contracted hours. You know, in this country and in most countries in the world it's absolutely lawful for workers to go home after their contracted hours - they're not paid any kind of compensation for working additional hours. 

"At the end of the day, the company seem to be stirring up to want some sympathy because they can't get slavery out of these workers."

Bosomworth said the employees are refusing to do "after-shift cleaning", which Abbott said wasn't true - they're still cleaning, just doing it inside their rostered hours. 

"Why should they have to work 60 hours a week for less they can even live off?" 

Bosomworth said workers were also refusing to do overtime, but only renewing the ban on a day-by-day basis to "cause the maximum disruption".