Exclusive: ACC found 'critical issues' in care of injured workers at Talley’s Group in 2019

Source: 1News

ACC was notified of serious failings in the care of injured workers at Talley’s Group two years ago, a 1News investigation can reveal.

Officials were told the powerful food manufacturer had failed to properly handle injury claims for several injured meat workers in October 2019, leaving the already vulnerable employees hurting and without the proper recovery they deserved.

Documents obtained by 1News under the Official Information Act (OIA) show an independent auditor found nine “critical issues” at a factory run by the meat works AFFCO, which is owned by the Talley’s Group.

Have you suffered an injury at Talley’s or AFFCO? Contact Thomas.Mead@tvnz.co.nz

Both Talley’s and AFFCO are members of ACC’s Accredited Employers Programme, a special arrangement which allows the companies to handle their own injury claims in-house.

It gives the food manufacturing giant the power to “act in the shoes” of ACC and accept or deny claims filed by its own staff. They have the responsibility for all medical care for injured employees, and must arrange weekly compensation and rehabilitation.

There have been serious accidents over the years, including a fisherman who was decapitated by a rope in 2014.

Data obtained from ACC shows they receive hundreds of injury claims from employees every year through the accredited scheme, with more than 1200 incidents filed across Talley’s and AFFCO between 2018 and June 2021.

But they must follow the rules the same way ACC would – and an audit found AFFCO was failing to live up to that standard in late 2019.

The independent auditor looked through the injury management system at a South Pacific Meats plant in Invercargill, which is operated by AFFCO.

He found incorrect compensation payments and poor medical care of staff, noting that in one case, the compensation paid to an injured worker was “inaccurate” and “the sums did not add up”.

In another, injured employees were left for more than three weeks without a rehabilitation plan, and more than two weeks without an “action plan”.

There were also problems with the complaints process, with the auditor finding “no evidence” of progress on requests for review.

“There had been 12 requests for review recorded in the last year,” he wrote.

“There was no evidence available on the days of this audit of how these requests had been handled and of any reviews that may have been held and concluded.”

ACC wrote to the company warning it may lose its accreditation but an “action plan” was required, demanding changes to their process to rectify the deficiencies.

Following another audit a couple of months later, it approved AFFCO’s “primary” accreditation to continue managing its own claims.

The documents show the approval was given despite limited evidence of improvement in some areas.

In one area, the independent auditor, who had been back called in to review the improvements outlined in the action plan, wrote that the company’s actions was “probably sufficient”. In another, he wrote that their actions “appear” to have solved an issue. He also highlighted a need for ongoing work, particularly around the company’s complaints process.

Talley’s described the audit findings as “learning opportunities” in a statement to 1News, highlighting they were given “primary” accreditation following the further audit.

A spokesperson added that AFFCO “welcomes” ACC audits.

“Auditors frequently find matters that require improvement and that is how the IMU team address them,” they said.

“In line with our experience, taken constructively, audit findings encourage improvement.”

They also highlighted how AFFCO was given a higher "tertiary" accreditation after an independent ACC audit in October this year.

But 1News has spoken to several experts, who believe ACC has repeatedly failed to hold accredited employers like Talley’s to account.

There are around 140 of them across the country, all with the power to manage their own injury claims.

Lawyer Peter Sara, who has represented many Talley’s claimants, said many employers were “able to get away with it” because there was a lack of consequences.

“It seems to me, with respect, that the audit function that ACC performs is not working,” he told 1News.

“Where is the monitoring and corrective processes, where is the accountability here?”

Hazel Armstrong, a lawyer and the co-convenor of the ACC Futures Coalition, said the accredited programme had failings across the board.

“My impression of the employers is that they're just trying to save money, that's why they're doing it, so you're not getting the extensive rehabilitation ACC can provide,” she told 1News.

“Often I think it's quite cruel, because the people are being manipulated by their employer and because they're vulnerable.”

Armstrong believed the Government should take action, forcing all accident claims to go back to ACC.

“The Government needs to step in and say we've had enough of this AEP, it's not delivering the results we want,” she said.

“I now think it should be scrapped, I don't think there's any place for it.”

The New Zealand Meatworkers Union also believed workers were being short-changed by the scheme.

National secretary Daryl Carran said he had seen first-hand evidence of employers abusing their powers.

“I think it's quite despicable, because it just misses the whole point of protecting workers with ACC with injuries,” he said.

He also believed it should be scrapped.

“We've got the worst outcome socially for workers, where they've got no means of income, and all sorts of difficulties around maintaining financial commitments, you can just imagine,” he said.

“I've seen houses that they have lost and sold, I've seen relationship breakups and I've had them on my office, on more than one occasion, in complete tears and completely distraught.”

ACC refused to be interviewed by 1News but released a statement late this afternoon. Their acting chief operating officer, Gabrielle O’Connor, stressed that that the accredited employers programme is monitored by independent auditors.

“If the audit process highlights any significant issues, then ACC works directly with the employer to rectify those,” she wrote.

“This may include implementing an action plan, on-going monitoring, engagement with the employer and employees, and training.”

Any questions on “fundamental reforms” would require legislative change, she said.

But with the concerns piling up about the system, it leaves the question - is ACC looking close enough?