Thomas Foods may keep workers on stand-down without pay ‘indefinitely’

Union proud: Australian Meat Industry Employees Union secretary Sharra Anderson stands with some of the Thomas Foods International workers who have been on stand-down since a fire on January 3. Photo: Peri Strathearn.
Union proud: Australian Meat Industry Employees Union secretary Sharra Anderson stands with some of the Thomas Foods International workers who have been on stand-down since a fire on January 3. Photo: Peri Strathearn.

A standoff is brewing between Thomas Foods International (TFI) and the meat workers' union about how long workers can be kept on stand-down without pay.

A month has passed since parts of the company's Murray Bridge abattoir were destroyed by fire, and dozens of workers say they are still waiting to hear from their employer.

Some workers have received letters from TFI, making it clear that they have not received any pay or entitlements since January 3.

But the workers say they cannot use the letters to sign up for unemployment benefits, as they are still technically employed.

About 30 attended a meeting organised by the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) at the Swanport Hotel on Wednesday.

Union organiser Kaine Sich said the company had advised the AMIEU that it could keep workers on stand-down indefinitely.

TFI planned to reassess the situation in six months' time, he said.

"We don't believe it can be extended that far ... (even though) they are fulfilling their obligations of offering work, they're following the process," he said.

"We don't believe they can stand down workers indefinitely.

"We'll be challenging that."

However, he said TFI had confirmed that workers on stand-down could access any paid leave owed to them, at half pay over twice as many weeks if that helped.

Anyone experiencing severe financial hardship could contact the company and be put at the front of the line as more jobs became available, at Lobethal or elsewhere.

A handful of jobs at two TFI-owned sites, Holco's boning facility at Cavan and a potato processing plant at Virginia, were being made available to employees who were still without work.

AMIEU state secretary Sharra Anderson said she understood why workers feared speaking out, but that now was the time to provide information the union could use to advocate on their behalf.

"At the moment all the government agencies are looking at Thomas Foods and how they're handling this," she said.

"I can use this information to go talk to the task force and try to force the government to give us some hardship payments to get you through.

"They'll start prioritising people now, and this single mother, she maybe needs priority over someone whose partner's working, for example."

Or, as Mr Sich put it, "you can live on your feet or die on your knees – we've got to stand up sometime".

Unless workers made their voices heard, the AMIEU's Jayme Marshall said, the only viewpoint broadcast in the media would be TFI's.

Thomas Foods did not confirm any of the information provided to the union, but sent The Standard a statement from chief executive officer Darren Thomas.

"We are working with staff regarding their individual circumstances, and in line with our industrial agreement, to achieve the best possible outcome," he said.

"Discussions with individual employees remain confidential."

  • Counselling and support for TFI employees: Phone 1800 302 787 or 8532 1955, or visit Regional Development Australia at 137 Adelaide Road, Murray Bridge.
  • More information: www.facebook.com/amieusouthwest.

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