‘We have to face the fact that economies in labour must take place if we are going to survive.’
Plant sets standard of excellence
By BRENT REID
THERE’S a spring in the step of Michael Sanders as he makes his way each morning to his office at the Tomoana freezing works.
As general manager of one of the country’s largest and most up-to-date mutton and beef killing plants, his feeling of well-being is knowing he captains a good ship.
Today, when several slaughterhouses are beset by industrial unrest, low output, high overheads, strikes, and even closure, Tomoana is attaining a level of excellence by which other works could well be judged.
At Tomoana, on the outskirts of Hastings city, they don’t intend to become another Southdown, Gear or Patea. The thrust at the works is efficient production. Yet the single-minded resolve to succeed in what has been a troubled industry has not come about by good fortune but by a willingness of management and union to work in harmony.
Industrial engineering is the blueprint for success at Tomoana.
To be sure, it hasn’t always been that way, but Mr Sanders is not joking when he says industrial-related stoppages during the past couple of years have been insignificant.
“Disputes have been minor and only short-term with little effect on production.” he said. “At the works management is constantly looking for potential trouble spots an [and] seeking solutions to enable the plant to operate efficiently in terms of job requirements and rewards to staff.”
Supportive of management is union president Pat Weir, a man who cut his teeth during four years in the freezers before rising to the top slot in 1980.
Though he doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility of strike action, he said it must only be used as a last-resort weapon. While he refers to management as ‘‘them” and the union and its rank and file members as “us”, he readily acknowledges one cannot function without the other.
“It’s management’s job to look after profits and union’s responsibility to protect the rights of workers.” he said. But that can only be achieved if both parties are prepared to meet on common ground with a willingness to co-operate, to be flexible.
He said unreasonable demands only kill the goose that lays the golden egg, and that’s a no-win situation. Moreover, without this spirit of co-operation, all the rules and regulations in the world won’t bring about industrial harmony.
Such a spirit exists at Tomoana.
But Mr Weir is firmly convinced it only exists because of well-conceived industrial engineering incentive schemes which now cover all production at the works. He said industrial engineering is, in essence, the blueprint for success at Tomoana.
‘Sweat boxes don’t benefit anyone.’
The agreements deal in scientific facts, taking the guesswork out of manning levels, a potential trouble spot in the industry.
Disagreements over manning levels, therefore, can be solved by using factual criteria and not by holding a stopwatch over workers.
This is also supported by good systems of management and communication between departmental foreman and their staff. In addition, when industrial engineering schemes are introduced or altered, they must be acceptable to both parties.
The importance of industrial engineering to Tomoana is reflected in the fact that 42 members of the branch have already attended courses on the subject – the highest number of any plant in the country.
Industrial manager Gary Minton, who was in charge of introducing industrial engineering schemes to the works, said he had certain reservations before the first scheme was introduced to the boning room during the 1976-77 season.
The fact that more than 20 schemes exist today and have been accepted by and workers is proof of their success. Mr Weir said the schemes had created stability in the workforce, lowered staff turnover and instilled in workers a greater sense of responsibility.
But he is adamant no individual can take the kudos for what has happened at Tomoana.
“It has been a real team effort.”
While he concedes most workers are only there for the money – who enjoys working in blood and guts? – such is the climate at Tomoana that they still have deep pride in their work.
This is one of the pleasing aspects to Mr Sanders, who came to Tomoana in 1974 after managing smaller plants in Australia.
“Certainly staff have pride in their job. In fact there is an increasing determination to make the product the best it can be.”
Mr Sanders must obviously take some of the credit for this state of affairs.
He is held in high esteem at Tomoana. He has brought a refreshing approach to the plant which has gone beyond the balance sheet mentality disregarding human feelings and needs.
Unfortunately he could not hope to be on first name terms with the 1600 staff who man the plant during the peak of the season. But he is ever mindful of his public relations responsibility and its importance to morale. The pieces of the jigsaw haven’t simply fallen in to place, however. Since Mr Sanders became manager, the works has had its trials and tribulations, none more so than when a fire destroyed the old killing complex in September 1979.
Though a new $30 million mutton plant was being commissioned then, the fire had disastrous consequences. Extra pressure was placed on the new complex to maintain an acceptable level of production at a time when modern gadgetry, from chain control to computer operated carcase freezers, should have been broken in slowly.
But with the old killing space no longer there, the pressure was on.
“Clearly the fire accentuated the teething troubles in the new plant,” Mr Sanders said.
But those days are now well behind Tomoana. The beef complex has been rebuilt and the mutton plant is functioning with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine.
The production figures tell the story.
In the first season 220,000 sheep and lambs were killed between the start of the season and Christmas. During the corresponding period this season 545,000 head were slaughtered, which places the works in a position to better their New Zealand record kill of 2,424,000 head last season.
By the end of January, 901,500 head had been killed. The high point of last season was during the week February 8-12 when 101,124 head were processed during a normal five-day working week of 7¼ hours a day. The week ended with 20,681 head being slaughtered, a tally management believe to be a world record, and a total only 199 short of the plant’s maximum capacity.
This level of performance is continuing this season with 20,000 head being bettered on 10 days out of 12 during December, the best daily figure of 20,679 on December 17 falling only two short of the record.
Progress means change and management and union are fully aware of this.
The beef complex – opened less than a year after the fire – is also in record breaking form. Last season, the second after the fire, the works killed 87,000 head which was only 3000 leas than the record set during the 1975-76 season. And the record could be surpassed this season as 25,800 head had been killed by the end of January.
Mr Sanders is justifiably proud of these performances. He is proud, too, of the way staff bridged the gap between old and new techniques and are now steering a course to even greater achievement.
But progress means change, and management and union are fully aware of this.
That the works have spent huge sums of money in spite of the uncertainty in the meat and wool markets, is tangible evidence of their confidence in the long-term future of the industry. However, because New Zealand’s isolation from the main trade routes of the world brings additional costs in transporting products from the farm gates to consumers, every endeavour must be made to operate as efficiently and economically as possible, Mr Saunders said.
“We have to face the fact that economies in labour must take place if we are going to survive.”
This, of course, means the introduction of modern technology such as the controversial skin pulling machine, which unions, fearing wholesale layoffs, have strenously [strenuously] fought.
Mr Sanders said that while the introduction of technology must mean a loss of jobs, there are opportunities in further processing to create new jobs. Examples are in lamb cuts – Tomoana did 226,000 head last season – and in chilled beef, both of which will expand in the future.
But Mr Sanders said that though there was a large reservoir of people wanting to eat New Zealand meat, it had to be at a price more in line with cheaper white meats such as chicken and pork.
The level of efficiency being achieved at Tomoana is obviously the key to this.
Union secretary Bruce Stobie, who has been at Tomoana since 1969, said there had been enormous improvements at the plant since then. He attributes this progress to “enlightened management” and the industrial engineering schemes which, he says, are really a form of industrial democracy. Conversely, badly engineered schemes can spell doom to the freezing industry, particularly when they enable workers to exceed accepted levels of output.
“What’s the point of burning out a worker in five years? I frown on any incentive scheme that allows that to happen,” Mr Stoble said.
“Sweat boxes don’t benefit anyone.
“A worker must be able to start his working life in the industry and continue till retirement.”
A former union president at Tomoana, Mr Stobie said works must also guard against boredom caused by the repetitive nature of the jobs. At Tomoana precautions are being taken to prevent this by training staff to be proficient at several jobs.
Being able to swap workers around from time to time should not only produce a more contented workforce, but benefit the farmer as well.
Hawke’s Bay Federated Farmers provincial president Ewan McGregor is elated at the lack of industrial strife at Tomoana.
“Higher kills have taken a great load off farmers’ minds,” he said. “The record at the works during the past two years has demonstrated what can be achieved if management and union work together.”
Mr McGregor said everyone from the worker to the producer is better off in such a climate.
A prolonged drought in Hawke’s Bay this season has highlighted the need for consistent killing at freezing works. Tomoana is achieving such consistency.
“And make no mistake, farmers really appreciate this effort”
Photo captions –
TOMOANA freezing works general manager Michael Sanders, seated, and industrial manager Gary Minton have good reason to smile. The plant has attained high production levels with a minimum of industrial strife.
ROBIN Muraahi at work in the boning room. Behind him is union delegate Mike Taylor and at left foreman Tom Lowe.
UNION members and industrial engineers at work at Tomoana. From left are Len Key, Pet Kerrisk, Bruce Stobie, Pat Weir, Annette Nugent, Owen Draper, Snow Te Whaiti, and Ian McKenzie.