About 65 workers at the Parmalat dairy factory in Echuca, Victoria, have been locked out since January 18 in a dispute over the company's plan to radically slash pay for new employees.
Parmalat is a national dairy company, whose brands include Pauls, Oak and Vaalia. In February last year it was bought by French-based company Lactalis, the largest dairy manufacturing company in the world. Emmanuel Besnier, CEO of Lactalis, has a personal worth of $6.7 billion and in 2015, Parmalat Australia’s sales revenue was $1.65 billion.
In July, it presented the unions representing workers at its Echuca plant, the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), with an enterprise agreement log of claims that represented a major attack on wage rates and employment conditions.
In early October, Parmalat lodged an application with the Fair Work Commission, saying it was in the public interest that the Commission terminate the existing Echuca site Agreement. This application was lodged with the Commission only five weeks after the agreement’s nominal expiry date.
The company proposed a 9% wage rise over three years for existing workers on the condition that all newly-hired workers would be paid 20% less than existing employees. Union members at the plant unanimously rejected the proposal and announced a four-hour strike. The company responded on January 18 by shutting down operations, locking out the workers and declaring the site would not reopen until the dispute was resolved.
If the Fair Work Commission approves this application, new Parmalat Echuca employees will be paid $8 an hour or about $320 a week less in wages than current workers. As well, reductions in shift penalty loadings will result in a further loss of between 5% and 15% in wages. Workers would also face lower overtime penalty rates and their long service leave accrual rate would be 30% less.
Since January 18, locked out union members have maintained a round-the-clock protest camp outside the Parmalat site. During the recent heatwave, when temperatures soared above 40°C, Parmalat turned off the tap the workers had used to keep everyone hydrated. But the workers have strong community support and the camp was saved from running dry by the generosity of a local water carter who donated a 10,000 litre water tanker, which is now parked at the front of the Echuca site.
On February 17, union members from the Echuca site travelled to Bendigo to speak with employees at the Parmalat site there. They received strong support from the workers who recognised that Parmalat could take the same approach when the Bendigo site agreement is up for renegotiation later this year.
Secretary of the National Food Division of the AMWU Tom Hale said: "They are holding solid. We are going to be here until we get this fixed.
“Parmalat tried to get the current workforce to agree to a system that would effectively create a two-tiered system with future workers and would treat them like second-class citizens.
“This dispute is about job security and fairness and the workers won’t accept a deal that is fundamentally unfair not only to themselves but to any other future workers.”
A further Fair Work Commission conciliation conference is due to take place later this month. Despite the heat, AMWU and ETU members remain absolutely determined to continue their protest and to maintain all their conditions.