Melbourne Chef forced to back down

May 10, 2008

After a four-hour community blockade on April 9, Melbourne Chef agreed to pay out sacked National Union of Workers (NUW) member Abdelwahab Bekhaled and negotiate a collective agreement at the site. However, the company reneged on the agreement, sparking a month-long union campaign. Bekhaled has finally received a payout that included long-service leave and all his entitlements.

NUW organiser Cameron Stops told Green Left Weekly on May 7 that after stalling the process unduly, the company has also begun to negotiate a collective agreement for workers with the union.

During the April 9 blockade, a group of workers told the picketers that the bosses were threatening to lay them off if the protest continued. Electrical Trades Union apprentices joined the protest after having just concluded a mass meeting that discussed a new enterprise bargaining agreement.

Bekhaled, an NUW member and an occupational health and safety representative, was sacked on April 2 after having stood up for a co-worker who had been bullied by his supervisor. He had been employed by the company for 10 years.

Bekhaled told GLW that the bosses made it clear the union was unwelcome in the workplace. According to Stops, Bekhaled was sacked because he was an active unionist and fought to improve the atrocious working conditions at the company. "There are many newly-arrived migrant workers with very limited English and no knowledge about their rights at work, which means that they are easy to manipulate and intimidate", he said.

Melbourne Chef also employs overseas students on restricted working visas and allegedly pressures them into accepting low wages and excess working hours. One young worker, who had been employed for three years and was working a four-day week, was only getting paid $90 for an eight-hour work day.

"Around 50% of the workers here are casual, and everybody is on different hourly rates. Many casuals are on $13 per hour; some get paid cash in hand. It is very bad", Bekhaled told GLW. He said there had been many health and safety breaches and that the company had a bad record in dealing with workplace injuries.

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