by Don Franks

After several days of rumors, Fonterra today confirmed a series of massive job cuts.

Apparently the company held meetings with all finance delivery staff on Wednesday to announce proposed layoffs. Previously, Fonterra refused requests for comment.

Fonterra workers entering a meeting in Hamilton were instructed not to speak to the media

Fonterra workers entering a meeting in Hamilton were instructed not to speak to the media

Fonterra forecast last month that the whole company would undergo a sweeping review in an effort to generate more cash for farmers facing a $4.40 per kilogram of milk solids payout this year, after a record $8.40 payout last year.  The CEO said at the time “hundreds” of jobs would go, with support services in the cross-hairs, while production and sales would see a boost.

No information on how many new jobs might be created has been released. Instead the firm put out a press release on Thursday saying it had begun “consulting staff on proposals to streamline its business structures”. The release also said the review was aimed at making sure Fonterra is ready to respond to a rapidly changing global environment.

“The world is changing and global dairy markets are increasingly volatile. To keep ahead of the game, we need to be more agile, reduce costs and generate value,” it said.

Accordingly, the firm was now developing “defined plans that will drive further improvement across the business, allow Fonterra to fund its growth strategy and deliver stronger results”.

“In other words, we’re kicking some of our workers out to make more profit for the bosses.”

No, of course Fonterra didn’t add that last bit, though it says exactly the same thing in fewer words. Like hourly-rated employees, plain English speaking is often a victim of capitalism.

In fact, capitalism denies any sort of speaking at all if it emanates from the wrong quarter. More than 100 Fonterra workers in Hamilton were called to a meeting at the Salvation Army Hall on Wednesday, which was one of many simultaneous meetings across the country. These workers were  given strict instructions on interaction with the media via internal email just prior to the meetings, including instructions to bring identity cards so they could be checked at the door.

What would you do if placed in these circumstances? 

All things being equal, my own first impulse would probably be to keep my head down and hope. What other option is there? As isolated individuals, we all stand utterly powerless before giants like Fonterra. The ‘natural ‘ impulse of most thus threatened folks would surely be to keep quiet and obey, for fear of being picked out as first to be fired.  I don’t blame any Fonterra workers for not rocking the boat. Our ‘natural impulse’ to silent obedience has been some time in the making.

 Fonterra is what has basically happened over the last few decades, year after year, under National and Labour. Apart from a few soundbites on the TV about how we are “gutted”, we have gone quietly. Even though the right to speak freely and openly about our job is surely a basic human right, at the moment it’s a right we don’t have, a right we have somehow let wither away.

These days there is hand-wringing about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It is “being conducted in secret”, it’s “a threat to our way of life”. Not so. Acceptance of secrecy in the name of ‘business confidentiality’ has become our way of life. We are muzzled by big business, by the day, the hour and by the minute.

There is an alternative to this degrading existence and its name is mass industrial action. Old fashioned, yes; risky, yes; outdated – I don’t think so. If one large site threatened with lay-offs got it together, occupied their site and made as much uproar as they could, several good things would happen. The workers could well win some concessions, at least a bigger pay out. The action would encourage other workers to stand up on their own jobs. And, not least,the workers taking the action would feel a hell of a lot better about themselves.

We have taken such actions before. Our responsibility to the next generation is to do so again. 

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