The future remains uncertain for 250 employees of Thomas Foods International (TFI), three weeks after a fire destroyed part of the company’s Murray Bridge meat works.
TFI has so far employed 340 extra workers at its Lobethal facility, and will take on another 70 there and 150 at Tamworth, New South Wales in the near future.
Ninety staff who worked in areas unaffected by the fire have returned to work.
Five hundred working holiday visa holders were let go a fortnight ago.
That leaves another 250 people out of the original workforce of 1400.
At Lobethal yesterday, chief executive officer Darren Thomas told media it was too early to say how many would be kept on.
He pointed out that some had already sought jobs elsewhere.
He expected state and federal help might be forthcoming for the others, perhaps in the form of infrastructure projects that would create short-term employment during the rebuild, perhaps as training packages for those who wanted to move into anothe industry.
"The reality is there will be some people we'll not be able to gainfully employ," he said.
"We'll work closely with them, we'll work very hard to make sure they are looked after as well as possible.
"We won't leave people by the wayside."
He said more information would be forthcoming about whether those workers would be able to access more leave, if they had it, or whether they would receive government assistance.
The workers were due to be paid today.
He did not challenge a suggestion that the workers who had shifted to Lobethal had accepted reduced pay and conditions, saying the facility operated under a different industrial agreement.
"(Working) here is something that no-one is forced to do," he said.
"There are people here that have worked 21 days straight, without a break ... to get the result that I'm here to talk about today.
"I'm sure many of them are happy to be working here.
"Not everyone will be willing to transfer to (Lobethal); some people will see it as a great opportunity to ... go into a different industry.
"The reality is it won't suit everyone, and they're the people we need to get around and make sure that we can ... transition them to their next stage."
He said the rebuild at Murray Bridge would take 12 to 24 months, and that he would keep the community informed.
Union pleased for 650, concerned for the rest
The Australian Meat Industry Employees Union's state secretary, Sharra Anderson, had a mixed reaction.
"We are pleased TFI have managed to get a econd shift at Lobethal up and running, however we still have deep concerns for the other hundreds of workers that are out of work with no immediate job prospects," she said.
We must support TFI: state government
In a statement, Employment Minister Kyam Maher said jobs were the state government’s number one priority.
“We’ve worked hard to address Thomas Foods’ immediate needs as it plans its recovery, while also reducing the significant effects that a loss – even temporary – of such an important regional business can have on regional communities like Murray Bridge,” he said.
“As one of the state’s biggest employers, and a company that continues to have a vitally important role in a livestock industry that’s worth $4.8 billion to this state, it’s critical that as a state we support them in their efforts to rebuild.”
The taskforce coordinating the the response to the fire said B-double access had been granted to Lobethal, and sewage and water upgrades were ongoing.
The taskforce has also been working with Regional Development Australia to give financial counselling to affected non-farm businesses.
‘We will come through this’: Mayor
Murray Bridge Mayor Brenton Lewis said he had complete faith that the community would draw closer together as the recovery continued.
"When the river fell 2.5 metres in the horrendous drought, we had no idea when it would end; that period caused despair," he said.
"Whilst this has significantly greater immediate impact, there is every reason to have faith and hope for the future.
"We will come through this and eventually be stronger and better in terms of the economy and community."
He asked everyone clamouring for information to be patient, saying TFI was working around the clock.
"This is a company that is genuinely considering their people first, let nobody doubt that," he said.
"Their integrity is beyond question.
"They have committed to redeveloping the best plant in Australia in Murray Bridge – what more could be asked for?"
Future is bright: MPs
State MP Adrian Pederick acknowledged TFI’s efforts, and said there had been plenty of growth in jobs at other industries in the regions.
Federal MP Tony Pasin commended TFI for creating 340 jobs at Lobethal in such a short space of time, and said he, the federal government and its agencies would continue to offer their support.
"I look forward to a bright future for the company and its employees in Murray Bridge," he said.
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