Thirty workers at Tristar Steering and Suspension in Marrickville are still fighting for redundancy entitlements provided for under a longstanding enterprise agreement (EA), which expired in September. The workers have been idle since production shifted overseas in July, while the company has used PM John Howard's Work Choices legislation to save money by not paying the workers their due.
In the year before the EA expired, around 100 workers were retrenched. In July, Tristar forcibly retrenched another 150 workers. Since then, 50 other mainly long-serving workers have accepted redundancies with a significant loss of entitlements.
The remaining workers have been offered redundancies amounting to about a quarter of the EA provision of four weeks' per year of service. They have been given until February 15 to accept, after which they will only get what is available to them under the award — 12 weeks' pay, or about $8000 each.
Under the EA, the company would have to pay the remaining workers around $4.5 million. Under the new IR laws, the company can keep workers who refuse redundancies on for 12 months and then pay each 12 weeks' redundancy. This would save Tristar around $3 million.
The case made the national press when one worker, dying of cancer, was refused a redundancy after working for the company for 43 years. Following a public outcry he received his payout — less than a quarter of what he was entitled to under the EA — just two days before he died.
Some of the remaining 30 workers have been with the company for up to 49 years and were relying on the redundancy payout for their retirement. The longest-serving workers would receive over $200,000 under the old agreement.
Tristar's parent company Arrowcrest applied to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to have the EA terminated. The AIRC granted the company's request but ruled that any redundancies offered to existing employees must be based on existing wage levels, preventing Tristar from cutting wages to reduce the company's redundancy costs.
Tristar has used Howard's new IR laws to achieve this outcome. New workplace relations minister Joe Hockey has admitted that Tristar's actions are okay under the laws and the company cannot be legally forced to pay the workers their entitlements under the old agreement, even though he has admitted it is unlikely that the company has further work for its remaining employees.
Tristar has publicly claimed that it has work for the next two years and so needs the plant to stay open. Yet nearly all the machinery has been removed from the factory and only a small stock of old steering racks and components for previous model vehicles remain. One employee is reconditioning these by hand — an output of one per day, compared to 1600 racks per day with the factory at full production.
Many of the remaining employees are migrants who have worked in the one job since coming to the country. They have been working as process workers on the company machinery and, with their machines gone, are no longer needed. They fear their skills will not get them any work anywhere else.
The workers, members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Australian Workers Union, have vowed to keep fighting for a better deal. A rally to support the workers' struggle will be held outside the factory gate on Carrington Road (corner of Renwick Street), Marrickville at 6.30am on February 8.