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Contract milker loses job on Northland farm

The contract milker filmed hitting cows with a steel pipe is no longer working at the farm, and will need to vacate his house given to him to use as part of his employment.

Northland Rural Support Trust co-ordinator Julie Jonker said she could not confirm when his contract was terminated, but believed it was as soon as the farm owners were legally able to do so.

She said losing his job would also mean he would need to vacate his house, which was supplied by the farm owners as part of his employment package.

The trust is working with the contract milker and the owners of the farm.

Jonker said the contract milker was a good person who made a mistake and was being vilified in the media.

“We have to remember there is a person’s life involved.”

A statement issued on Friday by the farm owners said the man had been removed from "unsupervised contact with stock pending the outcome of due process with regard to our contractual obligations".

The statement did not say at that point the man had lost his job.

At that time, animal advocacy group Farmwatch's volunteer investigator John Darroch said it was "upsetting to find out that he is still working with those animals".

"The key wish for us, as Farmwatch, and also for the workers who came to us, is that those cows would no longer have to deal with him,” he said.

Hidden camera footage captured by Farmwatch showing the contract milker repeatedly hitting cows was supplied to the Ministry for Primary Industry on June 21. MPI visited the farm a week later, the day Newsroom published the footage. 

Darroch said he was concerned at how long it took the Ministry to visit the farm.

“The public and my expectation, and I think it is a reasonable one, is that MPI would have gone up on the Friday and he would have been prevented from having anything to do with animals from that day onwards.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous and I find it offensive he was allowed to continue working with the animals for a week before MPI went up there.”

Darroch was upset the contract milker was still seemingly handling the cows even after MPI’s visit.

“From that footage, they are terrified of him and justifiably so. That’s not going to change just because he’s supervised."

MPI wouldn't comment on the delay visiting the farm or whether allowing the contract milker to continue handling the cows is a satisfactory measure when animal welfare claims are under investigation.

Newsroom also asked if the Northland farm was part of the 1200 farms which are part of MPI’s farm audit programme, or one of the 300 farms the Ministry said it has audited in the last two years.

“As the questions are specific to the matter currently under investigation, we are unable to make any comment as to do so may jeopardise any potential future prosecution,” said MPI acting director of compliance services, Gary Orr.

"Irrespective of statute, it is an abhorrent way to treat animals."

New Zealand Vets Association chief veterinary officer Dr Helen Beattie described the footage published on Newsroom as "horrifying" and said it fails to meet the expectations of any reputable part of the dairy industry.  

She also said it fails to meet the requirement of the Animal Welfare Act, which requires the needs of animals to be met. These include: "physical handling in a manner which minimises the likelihood of unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress".

Whether the contract milker's continued contact with the cows, even supervised, could be distressing for them, Beattie said: "The Animal Welfare Act is silent on psychological health and welfare. It is however very likely that the cows would experience significant psychological distress from being exposed to this behaviour, particularly if it is a repeated event."

She said the Act must "genuinely protect animals from not only abuse and cruelty, but protect their health and welfare, including their psychological health".

"Irrespective of statute, it is an abhorrent way to treat animals."

The farm owners' statement did not clarify what "contractual obligations" they were working through with the contract milker. Contract milkers are independent contractors who manage the milking of a herd for a set fee.

Federated Farmers dairy sector chair Chris Lewis said Federated Farmers has templated agreements for contract milkers and sharemilkers. Members are encouraged to use these but are not obliged to.

"A contract for contract milking can be written up by any person/firm/organisation. Some are as little as seven pages long."

He said Federated Farmers' contract is 54 pages long and is considered the “gold standard” within the industry.  Failing to care for the herd is considered a “material breach” and grounds for termination of the contract.

Lewis said both Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ had free phone lines farmers and contractors could use for advice on legal and animal care matters.

Law firm Treadwell Gordon specialises in rural law, including employment and contracts. Partner Richard Austin said contracts he prepares for contract milkers all have clauses in them of an expectation of good animal husbandry.

“Even if it is not in the agreement, it is so obvious a term, it is so accepted within the industry that the court would imply the term anyway, so it would give the farm owner the rights to terminate the contract.”

He said sometimes contracts may have a provision within them which specifies a process for termination and sometimes mediation is compulsory.

However, Austin suspects the reason the contract milker is still handling the cows may not just be due to legal process.

“It’s probably not the law, or the rights which are in play here. It’s probably about the safety of the herd and making sure they can get milked. The owner might not be able to get anyone else in there to milk them.”

Fonterra continues to take milk from the farm. A Fonterra spokesperson told Newsroom on Friday: “In this particular Northland case, we are satisfied by the owner’s actions that the animal welfare event is over (e.g. the contract milker has been removed from any unsupervised work with animals).”

Fonterra has not responded to Newsroom’s question whether it considers it satisfactory the contract milker is still handling the cows.

Below is the full statement released from the owners of the Northland farm on Friday:

In reference to the reports regarding the treatment of some stock on our farm, as life long and committed dairy farmers we are shocked and deeply saddened.

We have been in contact with MPI, Fonterra and Dairy NZ and we will co-operate fully with the formal investigation into this matter.

As of today the contract milker concerned has been removed from all duties requiring unsupervised contact with stock pending the outcome of due process with regard to our contractual obligations.

We will be making no further formal comment at this time.

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