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The government vs Mainfreight

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 14 July 2017

mainfreightTo get the disclaimer out of the way, Mainfreight’s founder and chair Bruce Plested is not only a member of the Initiative. Bruce is also someone I admire. He built a billion-dollar logistics business, starting with a single Bedford truck in the 1970s.

Just as inspirational, Bruce remains a humble Kiwi, making contributions to the country in numerous ways. Just think of Duffy Books in Homes, providing free books to over 100,000 New Zealand children three times a year. It was an initiative made possible not least through Mainfreight’s generous support.

For those of us who know Bruce, none of this would be a surprise. His company is an exemplary business. And to me, Bruce is a national treasure.

And so Mainfreight’s bad publicity over the past weeks hurts and disturbs in equal measure.

What happened was “basically an administrative error”, as Bruce put it in a media release.

In a compliance audit by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the company could not provide written contracts for three of its employees. All of them were and are employed by Mainfreight. All of them are New Zealanders by birth.

And so, apart from this administrative oversight, Mainfreight did nothing wrong in employing them.

That, however, did not stop MBIE from punishing the company by publicly naming and shaming it. Mainfreight was stood down from recruiting migrant workers. The company can no longer sponsor any of their employees’ applications for work or residence visas.

For anyone familiar with Mainfreight, this feels like a gross injustice. There is hardly a more caring employer. But even caring employers make filing mistakes.

When I once visited Mainfreight’s headquarters in Otahuhu, I noticed a rock with a plaque at the entrance. It read: “This Facility is dedicated to the family and friends of Mainfreight, who have been at the centre of the Company’s success, and whose loyalty and support is our greatest strength.”

And then, in smaller font, right at the bottom of that plaque, it continued: “To the best of our knowledge, there were no politicians within 10 km of this site on the day of the opening.”

Mainfreight has usually kept a distance from politics (apart from Bruce’s recent scolding of the government’s inaction on housing and education reform).

In MBIE’s disgraceful treatment of this iconic Kiwi company, we can see why Bruce was right to be suspicious of government.

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