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Consultation more than piggy in the middle

The Dominion Post 6 June 2009

Tiemaen Corporaal was employed as a farm manager by Grant and Megan Catley on their sharemilking farm in Whakatane.

Mr Corporaal was made redundant in April 2008. He claimed he had been unjustifiably disadvantaged in employment and unjustifiably dismissed.

He claimed that the Catleys stole a pig from him, withheld his wages and bonuses, and breached oral terms of their agreement by not providing a cattle beast.

During his employment Mr Corporaal looked after three pigs for the Catleys. He claimed that one of those pigs was supposed to come to him. The employment agreement signed by the parties does not mention pigs.

There is no dispute that Mr Corporaal was entitled to one of the pigs if he looked after them. Unfortunately, another employee had taken a pig and had it killed for the Catleys. The Employment Relations Authority found that Mr Corporaal carried out his end of the bargain and that he was entitled to a pig.

The authority also found fault with the redundancy.

The Catleys' Tokoroa farm had been badly affected by drought and the herd in Whakatane was not performing to expectations.

Milk production on both farms was low and income levels had decreased significantly while expenses had increased. In early 2008 the Catleys decided to sell the Tokoroa herd to Mrs Catley's mother.

The Catleys were aware of their financial worries as early as January 2008, but it was not until March 2008 that they wrote to Mr Corporaal advising that they might sell the herds and that his position would no longer be necessary.

In April 2008 the Catleys wrote to Mr Corporaal giving him 2 1/2 weeks' notice of termination and instructing him to vacate the farmhouse on his last day of employment.

The authority found a number of flaws in their redundancy process. The Catleys knew in February 2008 that they would be selling the herd. They did not begin talking to the worker until March 2008, when the decision had already been made.

The employee was denied the opportunity to have any input. Further, the employment agreement provided for three weeks' notice, and only 2 1/2 weeks' notice was provided to Mr Corporaal. The Catleys' consultation process was, in effect, a sham.

The decision to sell the herd and end the sharemilking agreement had been made well before they ever wrote to the employee. While the restructuring was carried out for genuine commercial reasons, the way the Catleys went about it made the dismissal unjustified.

Mr Corporaal was awarded $3000 compensation and a pig.

Consultation is the key here. An affected employee must be given the opportunity to provide feedback on any proposal prior to any decision being made. Contractual provisions must be adhered to.

The Catleys' case is an example of employers trying to deal with the economic recession, but not following the law in the process.

Peter Cullen is a partner at Cullen - the Employment Law Firm

Email: peter@cullenlaw.co.nz

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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