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Former world record holder now battling for shearers’ rights

24 April 2019 - By Tracey Cormack

After a 13-year career as a professional shearer Jills Angus Burney decided to study law as a back-up, having “beggared her back really badly” while shearing.

She initially graduated in social science as a mature student and then studied law, completing a total of six years of full-time study at Waikato University including completing a Master’s degree in social science.  

The inspiration to turn to law came partly from her interest in the intersection of public policy and law.

Jills Angus Burney

“In my last year of my social science degree I did a lot of work around adoption laws and I had a look at that as a project and thought that a law degree would be very helpful in understanding public policy, so that is what I majored in – I did public policy and women’s studies at Waikato and then majored in public policy and ACC in law school – at Waikato University.”

She was also inspired by her friend Paul Williams who encouraged her to take up law. Paul was a former Waikato Students Union president and a graduate from the first class of Waikato law graduates. Jills was amazed at his skillset and thought, “That’s what you need. It’s the training, thinking and process that is so helpful in everyday life.”

“Some of the people we interacted with were people like Andrew Little who later became my boss at the EPMU, the Green Party member Jan Logie and Grant Robertson. They were all in the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations in the mid-nineties when I was involved with student politics – it was inspiring to watch them – people who are trained in processes.”

Having been brought up in the rural town of Feilding with her father working with Wrightsons Stud Stock (he also started a law degree at Victoria University in the 1950s) she had a lot of interaction with rural people and the rural economy.

She completed a six-month journalism course at Auckland AUT before going shearing full-time when she was 19 after starting work as a wool handler at Feilding Agricultural High School  and did her first days shearing at aged 16.

Champion shearer – and doco star

Jills held the women’s lamb shearing world record for 18 years.

“It is a very physical job - a hard job that involves a lot of high-end fitness training if you want to compete in high-performance shearing.

“We approached it from a high level of professionalism. We were full-time shearers 12 months of the year compared to the generation before us who were part-time farmers. Now it is all-year round. In Australia it is all-year too.”

She still competes and made the finals at the recent and historic first women’s New Zealand Shearing Championships held at Te Kuiti – the woman who won is half her age.

“That says something – I keep them honest.”

She says that competing is fun, however what she mainly does now is judge competitions as well as coach boys and girls.

Jills was involved in making and starring in She Shears, a New Zealand documentary  which was released last year during the NZ International Film Festival that focuses on five women, including Jills, in the shearing industry. Jills is the narrator of the documentary. Emily Welch (who broke Jills’ record) and three younger women, Hazel Wood, Catherine Mullooly and Pagan Karauria are all featured in the film.

In it they talk about having “sheep shite on the brain.” “Nothing has changed – I started out at 14 and I’m still as passionate about it as I was then.”

A different type of fleecing

“You used to be a sheep shearer and now you’re a lawyer – well you’re still fleecing, aren’t you?”

That was a comment by a “crusty criminal lawyer guy” she met at the first law dinner she attended in Wairarapa.

People assume that she is the first lawyer to be a sheep shearer, but Jills said when she was a teenager she worked in the South Island one summer where she met several men who were shearing and were also at law school or dental school – they were often famer’s sons doing professional degrees.

“You can’t compare them,” she says when asked whether she prefers law or shearing.

“It is a lot easier to see what you’ve gained (in shearing) – I like to look out and see what I’ve done (referring to lambs she will shear on the afternoon of the interview - she lives on a 10-acre lifestyle block in Masterton).

“Sometimes in my field of law you can be working on cases for one or two years and it can take years to get a result. Progress is really slow – it’s not like looking out the window and counting your sheep – there is something satisfying about the immediacy of results. People who work in harvesting and that type of work, they have a sort of instant gratification – it’s hard for people who don’t do that kind of work to understand how slow process is in law, the ins and outs of the law. It is a very privileged area of information.

“I spent nine years in the union (EPMU) in Andrew Little’s team. There are sharp people working in manufacturing jobs, they are just not bothered by other careers and I got to deal with a wide range of people.”

Jills is currently working on a fair pay campaign in the shearing industry. This is a passionate project for her – she has been giving advice in the shearing industry since she left law school. She also worked for Farmers Mutual in the private insurance market for a couple of years with small business clients – so she understands both sides.

“We are looking for a bottom-line. At the moment it is an anti-competition environment. MBIE have already done a review on shearing industry wages.

“For example, in Australia every worker gets $3.10 a sheep plus every worker gets 10 percent superannuation. The rate is always a lot less in NZ, partly because our sheep are a bit easier to shear. Most are getting about $2, but some are only getting $1.50 – and that contractor can go onto a farm and say that they will shear for 60c less than the contractor down the road whose workers are getting $2.

“It is almost like the whole free-market thing has gone too far – as you could have two contractors in one town paying a 50-60c difference in the piece-rate paid per sheep. So workers are penalised on not only the rate, but also on how many they can shear. Some contractors are double penalising them. The hardest working people in the sheds are the learners, but it takes time before they can get up to speed.”

Highlights in law

Employment law, ACC cases and appeals are the main focus of Jills’ work. Her first job was in the private ACC market at FMG and after that she went to work for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union.

At the EPMU multi-applicants came to her after redundancies at the Christchurch Press in 2002 - Anderson v The Christchurch Press CA 114/05 25 August 2005 - they received compensation, but had to go to court for it. The case involved 43 applicants who ended up receiving reimbursement of lost wages and compensation for humiliation.

Jills represented the appellant in a successful appeal against an ACC decision revoking cover for a work-related injury, Christian v Accident Compensation Corporation [2006] NZACC 133 (30 May 2006). The appellant worked at a sawmill over several years and was exposed to formaldehyde, dust and diesel fumes. He was diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive airways disease), and ACC declined cover for him.

“We had the support of some very good medical people. The judge said the respiratory physician, Professor Richard Beasley was very persuasive, and that the appellant was at significantly greater risk of developing COPD as a result of his employment.”

Bios and the Obamas

Last year Jills took a sabbatical for health reasons and went to work with some friends in the Australian outback. She ended up qualifying for a wool science course that she had started at Lincoln thirty-seven years earlier while she was a full-time shearer. She couldn’t complete it at the time because she needed 12 weeks of wool-handling (“and wool handling didn’t pay as well as shearing”).

Jills likes to read lots of overseas journalism, mainly biographies and her favourite book is William Taylor’s Telling Tales: A Life in Writing.  

“It was his memoir and probably one of my favourite books. He is a really good writer. He was a well-known international children’s author and was my teacher in form 2.  His memoir is expertly written.”

Jills has always been aware of racism, apartheid and politics as her mother was a member of HART (Halt All Racist Tours) and progressive Christian social justice movements.  If she could invite anyone to a dinner party, it would be Barack and Michelle Obama, Nigel Owens and Nelson Mandela.

“These people all have dignity in the face of adversity.”

She would hire her friend Jo Crabb, who is a French Cuisine chef in Martinborough, to create a menu.

The choice of wine was an easy question – Mt Difficulty pinot noir - she bought a box as soon as she graduated from law school as a celebration after six years of deprivation.

Swimming, hiking and being outdoors are relaxing pursuits for Jills.

While she was an ocean swimmer for 20 years (competing in the New Zealand Ocean Swim series between 1999-2016), walking has become a therapeutic pastime. She has completed the 26km Tussocks Traverse in Tongariro National Park, the Heaphy Track in January and last year the Abel Tasman walk. Next year there are plans to walk parts of the Te Araroa trail in the South Island.

“These are important things to do - to put goals in front of you for your health and wellbeing.”

Last updated on the 24th April 2019