Food manufacturing giant Talley’s Group interfered with injury claims filed by its workers, denying many their rightful compensation, according to two whistle-blowers with knowledge of the situation.
The two individuals warned that Talley’s and AFFCO, had abused their positions as ‘ACC accredited’ employers, leaving many vulnerable workers hurting and without a proper recovery.
Their claims raise concerns for the safety of hundreds of vulnerable accident victims across Talley’s business empire.
1News has spent the past five months investigating an “Injury Management Unit” the group runs for thousands of employees across Talley’s and its meat works AFFCO.
The unit was set up through the Accredited Employers Programme, which gives private companies the power to “act in the shoes” of ACC and manage injury claims themselves.
- Do you have information to share on Talley’s Injury Management Unit? Email Thomas.Mead@tvnz.co.nz
It gives the food manufacturer control over claims, including the recovery of injured workers at its many worksites. Their team has the ability to accept or deny injury claims, and the responsibility for rehabilitation and weekly compensation payments.
The unit – known as the “IMU” – deals with some nasty injuries. Workers across the Talley’s Group over the years have suffered everything from severed fingers and broken bones to a meat hook impaled through the head.
It has received more than 1200 injury claims between 2018 and 2021, with close to 200 filed just this year, according to data obtained from ACC.
Two whistle-blowers have now come forward to 1News to warn that Talley’s has abused their powers through the scheme.
Both people, who spoke to us separately and were not connected, said Talley’s and AFFCO factory managers had interfered with the IMU to save the group time and money. They did not want to be identified out of fear of reprisal.
The unit has its own case workers and qualified claims managers who make decisions – factory managers are unable to do so.
But both whistle-blowers warned factory managers had intervened in claim management to influence the denial of compensation, the cutting of entitlements and reduction in the rehab offered to injured workers.
Some accident victims had even been forced back to work before they had recovered, the two people added.
Both whistle-blowers stressed this had led to the exploitation of workers with low levels of education and migrants who spoke English as a second language.
ACC records show the company rejects dozens of injury claims every year, with the group refusing to pay out on 58 claims in 2018, 66 claims in 2019, 68 claims in 2020 and 53 claims between January and June this year.
1News spoke to one of the company’s accident victims, who told us they were repeatedly pressured to return to work.
“It was very stressful, I was in a lot of pain,” they said, speaking under the condition of anonymity.
“You felt like an inconvenience, and that other people were having to carry the load if you weren't there, and the tone definitely changed towards me when it became apparent that my injury was such that I wouldn't be back within two weeks.”
They added that their manager was aware of private information about their claim.
“It does make you feel very vulnerable, that they have a part of most of your life,” they said.
“It was incredibly stressful, to feel that my manager was involved in my injury really; I should be speaking to somebody else, I felt, about it.”
Some believe Talley’s and AFFCO should lose their “accredited” status with ACC.
Lawyer Peter Sara has represented many Talley’s injury claimants and said the company took an “aggressive” approach.
“Talley's would be the worst performer in terms of the different accredited employers I've dealt with,” he said.
“It's not something that is a one-off, that Talley's had a bad day. They're always having a bad day. It's a consistent pattern of what I would describe as seriously dysfunctional management of ACC cases.”
The Government should take action to protect the vulnerable people involved, the lawyer said.
“The experience of my clients is that Talley's turns on them, they become a kind of adversary, and that really is very, very bad obviously for an ongoing employment relationship,” he added.
“ACC is supposed to be managing this with a partner programme, it's supposed to be keeping an eye on accredited employers to make sure they are doing the right job, and it seems to me they're not - so it's a fault of ACC as much as it is of the accredited employer.”
1News put the whistle-blowers claims to ACC but they refused to be interviewed, instead releasing a short written statement.
Their acting chief operating officer, Gabrielle O’Connor, said the agency was “not aware” of any current complaints against Talley’s but employees were encouraged to raise their concerns with ACC.
“We have high expectations of all organisations in the Accredited Employer Programme to effectively manage claims and injuries to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees,” she said.
“ACC takes seriously any concerns raised by employees about the way their claim is managed. Talley’s employees can contact ACC at any time if they have any issues.”
Meanwhile a spokesperson for Talley’s issued a statement saying the company “completely denies the allegations”, describing them as “untrue”.
The spokesperson said they have been accredited at “tertiary” level, the highest level of accreditation available under the ACC scheme, and they are independently audited to maintain that accreditation.
They confirmed their site managers, line managers and supervisors were able to contact the unit to provide “feedback” on injury claims, “as specified [in] the Accredited Employers Programme Audit guidelines”.
But they denied crossing the threshold in those conversations, to order a specific outcome on the injured workers.
“Their input can be important however they do not make claim decisions, only qualified claim’s managers do.”
Words that may be hard to accept, for the hundreds of employees injured on their sites every year.