The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend



The Fonterra contamination crisis has been international news, particularly in the food industry circulars that arrive on my screen on a daily basis. The big surprise is the mock shock and surprise in NZ that such an event occurred.

Food safety recalls are quite common and increasing.

I know Fonterra take food safety extremely seriously and I do not have much sympathy for all the armchair critics with quick fix solutions.

However Fonterra is part of global agribusiness and a food system that is increasingly dominated by ingredients and commodities markets that have extraordinary complex supply chains to the end consumer. Within these supply chains there are multiple layers of outsourcing of processing, packing and distribution. Global agribusiness favours monoculture, and over dependence on fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides which exhaust and poison the soil and contribute massively to climate change.

Warning! Food safety risk!

One dirty pipe at the Hautapu dairy factory is a real threat to people’s lives and livelihoods and it is also about so much more.

China’s State sanctioned media commented that NZ’s 100% pure image was a festering sore and that decades of free market ideology and deregulation was degrading the country and putting safety at risk.

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Undoubtedly true.

But just because the Chinese media say something true it should not blind us to the massive environmental damage and abuse of workers’ rights perpetrated by Chinese State capitalism. The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.

Did anyone else see the pictures of the people of Beijing suffering during weeks of dangerous air pollution earlier this year? Has anyone noticed the over reliance on seriously polluting energy sources?

And did we say anything or even notice when a fire swept through the Baoyuanfeng poultry plant in northeast China on June 2 killing 120 workers? When the fire broke out there were 350 workers trapped in the processing facility and only one narrow exit.

Workers reported that the factory kept doors locked and that there had been no warning or training about workplace hazards such as the ammonia which is thought to have started the fire. The factory had had been praised by the Chinese government for its ‘innovative approach’ to poultry processing and was recognized as a ‘top 100’ agricultural firm in Jilin Province.

Chinese state media later reported that officials concluded that working conditions were too crowded, fire escape routes and procedures poor, and inspections substandard.

Why was this dangerous situation tolerated?

Most reports focused on corrupt state officials’ cozy relationship with business at the expense of worker and product safety and environmental degradation. But State officials and employers will tolerate dangerous workplaces as long as workers are not free to organize collectively for workplace safety. The root cause of the Baoyuanfeng fire and other workplace tragedies lies in the denial of workers’ rights to form independent trade unions, their sole means for exercising human rights at the workplace.

In food processing, workplace health and safety and food safety are inextricably linked.

The Fonterra contamination crisis shows us that a unionized workforce does not remove the risk of food contamination.  However, a workforce with secure employment and a stake in the industry certainly reduces that risk, as they become the day to day auditors and monitors of risk. How systems failed at Hautapu is of considerable interest and will no doubt be the subject of intense scrutiny by both employer and union.

A study in the United States showed that between 2001 -2009, non union meat and poultry plants were involved in USDA food recalls at a much higher rate than union plants. The study takes into account the rate of unionization in the industry in determining its findings.

The extreme anti union ideology  of most North American employers is a risk to workers and consumers.

And back in China, the State sponsored central union confederation the ACFTU watches from the sidelines as Chinese workers continue to be denied their rights.  Unless and until Chinese workers secure the right to organise, avoidable workplace tragedies will continue with distressing frequency.

Enquiries into such tragedies typically have no elected worker representatives or representatives of deceased workers’ families invited to participate.

Bit like the NZ forestry industry eh? Except our democratic and independent NZCTU is not watching from the sidelines but actively campaigning for real change.




  1. When someone points out that you have a bit of snot on your tie, when they have a bit of snot (or even a huge amount of snot) on their tie, doesn’t mean you don’t have snot on your tie.

    The fact that China is quite valid in its criticism of New Zealand is the issue. Chinese standards need to go up (we all recognise that) but they have huge challenges to overcome that we in New Zealand do not. We are an incredibly well-off country by comparison. We can’t justify our standards going down by saying at least we are not as bad as China.

  2. well that article was hard to read and it was hard to see what the point was. we like china? we don’t? it’s about unions? or food safety?

  3. First contribution on this I have seen to put it in the context of global capitalism, and which points to the need for workers to take control of industry not only to ensure food safety but prevent environmental collapse.
    Rebuilding unions however, will not be enough.
    Capitalism is in free fall and all monopoly capitalist corporations will come crashing down with it.
    We need to socialise production and the dairy industry can be a model for this. The state is the natural partner of the dairy cooperative so that bulk swaps can be done state to state rather than on the international market. We need a state bank like State Advances that provides cheap credit to farmers, and state marketing to guarantee prices. Such a partnership would benefit both farmers and the whole of society. Eliminating the anarchy of the market will allow agriculture to be planned to meet basic social and environmental needs.
    The unions can play an effective role in this by extending activism in the workplace to promoting such a program in its policies and lobbying the parties of the left.

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