Coronavirus: Export-driven food manufacturers questioned as staff say they're forced to work during lockdown

Food manufacturer and employee.
Food manufacturer and employee. Photo credit: Getty

A number of New Zealanders are outraged that staff at largely export-driven food manufacturers are required to work during lockdown, leading to questions over the fairness of putting employees' health at risk for the sake of feeding foreign markets.

An employee of an unnamed onion processing factory claims staff are required to work throughout New Zealand's four-week lockdown, despite all the produce being exported overseas. 

"I work in a food factory that processes onions - hardly essential by themselves. They export them all overseas, none go to the local market, but these guys have decided to stay open," the worker, who Newshub has decided to keep anonymous, told MagicTalk host Ryan Bridge on Tuesday.

"I don't see what good that's doing for New Zealand in this situation. The directors have decided because they can, because they're a food manufacturer, they're going to stay open... it's not cool, I'm really aggravated by it."

The employee says the factory has given staff an ultimatum: if they don't want to work, they don't get paid. 

"I have to work... if we don't, we don't get any money. I don't really have a choice, everyone needs a wage coming in," he said. 

"Everyone's health is at risk for absolutely no gain. An onion is not essential, especially when it's getting sent overseas."

One woman says her mother, who is employed as a meat inspector at an export-only meatworks, is required to work for the next four weeks.

"My mum does night shifts, she's working tonight and is on call for tomorrow. She's been told they're working through the whole thing, even though they only export the meat overseas... it's ridiculous," the woman told Bridge. 

"She's pretty pissed off. I suppose it brings money into the country, but it's putting the people working at risk. It's my mum, I want her to be safe."

The woman says the meatworks' employees have been issued the same ultimatum - do the shifts, or don't get paid.

A spokesperson for ExportNZ told Newshub that staff of essential businesses need to be upfront regarding any medical conditions, as employers do not want "to put vulnerable people in harm's way".

"If people are sick or have a cold, we don't want them at work. A high degree of caution is being exercised," the spokesperson said. She confirmed that workplaces will be following the protocol outlined by the Ministry of Health.

"There will be lots of care taken to ensure people are safe at work."

The spokesperson reiterated that export-driven food manufacturers and factories are considered essential businesses and are crucial to sustaining Aotearoa's economy.

"Stopping exports entirely throughout lockdown wouldn't work [financially] for most food businesses. We've already lost tourism - if we lost food exports, everyone would be struggling. New Zealand would take a huge economic hit," she told Newshub. 

"These manufacturers are essential businesses - food supply is essential. The world should be working together through this... [we wouldn't like it] if countries stopped exporting essential products, food and pharmaceuticals to New Zealand at this time."

A spokesperson for ham and bacon manufacturer Premier Beehive told to Newshub that a third MagicTalk caller, who claimed he was "forced to work" despite his medical conditions, has been stood down due to a chest infection. 

The caller, who Newshub has chosen not to identify, told MagicTalk he would lose his job if he was unable to work during lockdown - despite having an illness and chronic asthma. 

"If we don't work, we lose our jobs... I've got a medical condition, but I'm getting told I have to work. Otherwise, I'll lose my job," the caller claimed.

The Premier Beehive spokesperson said the man, who is a contractor with the recruitment agency Drake, has since been spoken to and the issue has been resolved.

"As an essential business, we are in the process of registering with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) as a safe practice, in line with the Government's advice," he told Newshub.

"Many employees with an illness are staying at home and we are observing the Government's protocols, such as keeping staff 2m apart. Some staff have been tested and given the all-clear and remain in self-isolation.

"We will continue to manufacture our produce in a safe environment."