Thomas Foods International says it needs 457, 417 visa workers; meat industry union, parliamentary inquiry say system open to abuse

The use of foreign workers at a time of high unemployment is stirring community anger in Murray Bridge, but the city's biggest employer insists it needs them.

Thomas Foods International human resources manager Morna Young said the company prioritised local job seekers "wherever possible".

"A large proportion of our workforce is from Murray Bridge," she said.

"Only a small percentage ... are on 457 (skilled worker) and 417 (working holiday) visas."

However, she noted the company regularly relied upon foreign labour as its workforce grew and shrank due to the seasons and buyer requirements.

"As an employer, we compete directly with many other local businesses for suitable labour such as Big River Pork, Adelaide Mushrooms, Beston Foods, Big W at Monarto and the like," she said.

"All these businesses operate in a similar environment, where they are often forced to ramp their workforces up and down."

Federal and state MPs have defended the company, including at a public forum last month, where Member for Barker Tony Pasin was asked why he and his predecessor had allowed the number of foreigners at the meat works to grow from 100 to as many as 700 under their watch.

Mr Pasin disputed those numbers, saying he had spoken with the company's senior managers.

"The response I've had is 'Tony, we run a business, and we don't want to employ 457 workers or 417 workers, we want to employ locals'," he said.

"The Thomas family are proud South Australians ... not only are they philanthropic around the community, but you know what, they're very astute business people.

"Four-five-seven workers and 417 workers are expensive labour for them.

"They would much prefer to employ locals, but the pool is simply not there."

Member for Hammond Adrian Pederick later expressed a similar view.

"We need hundreds, probably close to 1000 (457 visa workers) in this area just to make things work," he said.

"We can't fill the jobs locally."

Visa system open to abuse, union says

Australiasian Meat Industry Employees Union spokesman Graham Smith questioned whether that was the case.

Mr Smith said 457 workers were expensive – a minimum of about $54,000 per year – but that the 417 visa system was open to rorting.

"Labour hire companies are exploiting them more often than not, and the meat companies, while technically not their employer, say they know nothing about what's going on," he said.

"Most labour hire companies pay the bare minimum award rate or less.

"They're predominantly phoenix companies, $2 shelf companies ... they'll take one (company) that may employ two Vietnamese backpackers and do an enterprise agreement for the company that employs those two, then transfer all the other workers into that company."

In March, a parliamentary inquiry found the use of labour hire companies drove down costs and pointed to "a lack of commitment by employers to upskilling local workers”.

"The committee can understand that a business would want to have agility to respond to either upturns or downturns in demand by having a certain amount of flexibility in its labour hire arrangements," the inquiry's report stated.

"However, it is not clear ... why two thirds of the skilled labour force could not be employed permanently, with flexibility being provided by sourcing the remaining third on contract as required."

But the inquiry stopped short of recommending an end to the practice, as it acknowledged costs might need to be kept down due to pressure from competitors or the major supermarket chains.

Still, not all companies rely on foreign labour.

A spokesman for Murray Bridge-based Total Workforce Solutions, who recruit staff for Big River Pork, among other employers, said he did not have trouble finding enough local workers to meet demand.

He said they did not use 457 or 417 workers at all.

At any rate, Ms Young said Thomas Foods was always on the lookout for new team members, and had apprenticeships and a structured training program for workers new to the industry.

The skills required for job applicants were varied, but but a good attitude, strong work ethic and willingness to undergo a medical examination were essential, and a willingness to work early in the morning or later in the evening was a bonus.​