When 73 workers at the SPC Ardmona processing plant in Victoria in southeastern Australia went into work two days after Christmas, they received some decidedly Scrooge-like news. The employees (the plant’s entire maintenance workforce) were told that, in May of 2014, they will lose their jobs which will be outsourced to contract workers.
Electrical Trades Union branch organizer Damian King described SPC Ardmona’s decision as a “massive festive season kick in the guts,” adding that “it is totally arrogant and offensive to answer such proposals by telling 70 employees, on the first working day after Christmas, that their employment would be terminated.”
SPC Ardmona operates the largest food processing plant in Australia; its parent company is Coca-Cola Amatil, one of the five major Coca-Cola bottlers in the world. The company has defended its decision to fire so many workers on the grounds that it had informed them “earlier that their jobs were under review” and that the company had a “critical and urgent need to transform [its] business.”
SPC Ardmona Is Seeking Help From the Government
The announcement of the workers’ termination from the cannery occurs as SPC Ardmona is awaiting a decision on a request for $50 million in funding from the federal and Victorian governments. The funds are, says the company, to be used for a restructuring of its food processing business.
The Australian government is split about providing the funding, with government ministers saying that SPC Ardmona is responsible for its own rising costs and also wary about setting a “dangerous precedent” if they give in to demands to help the company. Others have cited concerns about “union influence,” says the Herald Sun, and argued that the company is paying dozens of workers inflated wages.
Union Says its Workers Are Being Used as “Sacrificial Lambs”
King of the Electrical Trades Union disputes that the workers are “highly paid by industry standards,” pointing out that “our members and the members of other unions work a considerable amount of overtime, a considerable amount of shift work and a considerable amount of weekend work” because SPC Ardmona requires this.
He suggests that the planned redundancy of the workers was meant to give the “appearance of improvements” before the Australian federal government reconsiders the funding proposal late in January. The plan to fire the workers has “the fingerprints of the Federal Government all over it,” he comments, noting that the union had submitted its own cost-cutting plan — including a two-year wage freeze, improved shift rostering and hours of work — to the company two weeks ago.
SPC Ardmona, which processes fruits and vegetables, has been in operation for over 90 years in Australia. Were the plant to close, up to 2000 jobs in the Goulburn Valley would be lost, the Greater Shepparton Council predicts. The company came into conflict with farmers this past April after it cut its orders of pears, peaches, apples, plums and apricots from local growers; some farmers responded by bulldozing their orchards.
The controversy over the firing of the workers has become “the latest flashpoint in the debate over taxpayer assistance” to private companies, following General Motors’ decision to stop making the Holden brand, the iconic Australian car, by 2017 and proposals for a debt guarantee for the Australian airline Qantas, The Australian says. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been taking “a hard line on handouts” in order to end “corporate welfare.
As a result, companies including SPC Ardmona have been told that they need to in effect get their affairs in order. But that does not mean that workers who’ve been keeping the company going should be told, when they come into work in the midst of the holiday season, that they will soon be out of a job.
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