By Jill Hickson
WOLLONGONG — Suddenly last week the recession deepened for 75 migrant women at Midford Paramount clothing when they were told the plant was to close and the company would not pay their entitlements, including retrenchment pay. While the company's accountants wanted the workers to continue operating the plant for another week, they would not even guarantee to pay them for that.
Most of the workers have been machinists all their working lives, and some have been at the plant for 17 years. The latest lay-offs follow the loss of around 200 other jobs in the local clothing and textile industry, and around 500 skilled jobs in the metal and engineering industries.
Police are investigating the disappearance of around $176,000 deducted from the workers' pay for matters such as health insurance. The workers apparently have had no health cover for the past month.
Midford, a well-known national producer of school and children's clothing, is one of the region's longest established clothing plants, operated from 1946 to 1990 as a family company by local businessman Syd Macdessi. Last March, another long-established clothing plant, Bondswear at Port Kembla, also closed after 30 years of operation.
Textile, clothing and footwear union state secretary Kevin Boyd told the July 23 meeting of the NSW Labour Council that Midford had been stripped of its assets since being taken over in 1990 by a company that had been involved in other asset-stripping raids, and which had had a major fire at one of its plants.
Many of the sacked women have been their families' sole income earners since the region's main employer, BHP, reduced its work force by 12,000 in the last decade. The July 21 Illawarra Mercury estimated that another 500 highly skilled metal and engineering jobs have been lost over the last 12 months. Employers are predicting more lay-offs before the end of the year.
On hearing of Midford's plans, 20 workers locked themselves in the factory, where they were later joined by others equipped with food and blankets for an overnight stay. But the occupation ended after five hours when police were called by the management. On the advice of union officials, the workers left the plant, while four officials stayed behind to be arrested. Among the four were Kevin Boyd and South Coast Labour Council vice president Faye Campbell.
The workers have set up a 24-hour picket in sometimes freezing temperatures to prevent the owners removing equipment, as well as stock worth $200,000. Community support is strong, with many people dropping off equipment, food and money.
Former owner Syd Macdessi dismisses claims that the closure is due to s tariff reductions. He says the government's policy hasn't changed since the sale of the plant. When it was sold, "Midford was a viable company", says Macdessi. "During its entire period of ownership, the tough recessions, credit squeezes and import dumping, not one single person was ever retrenched."
Since the 1990 sale to the Sydney-based Gazal Corporation, the plant has been leased to another, related company, Zalag Holdings, while Gazal retained control of the valuable Midford Paramount label. There are suspicions that Gazal intends to continue supplying the Midford label from international sources in which it is said to have holdings.
The closure culminated a long running down of the plant, during which the work force had been cut from 180. Workers say they have been suspicious of the management for some time because stocks of raw materials had not been replaced. Representatives of Zalag Holdings and Gazal Corporation were subpoenaed to appear before the federal Industrial Relations Commission on July 27 after they failed to appear on July 21.