THE jobs of up to 220 meat workers and staff at Tabro Meat’s Lance Creek abattoir, and 120 at the firm’s Moe processing plant are in jeopardy.
The firm is yet to process any cattle since before Christmas, more than a month ago, and despite assuring workers at a meeting on site last Friday, that they would be back at work on Wednesday, February 3, they remain concerned about their futures.
Tabro has previously announced January 6 and January 11 as return to work dates before being forced into further delays.
Several workers contacted the Sentinel-Times last week saying their hours had started to reduce from as far back as July last year.
Another employee said the last day he, and most others, worked at the plant was on December 16.
“The place usually closes down for two to three weeks over Christmas and we were told we’d be back to work on January 6,” he said.
“Then I received a phone call on January 5 saying there were no cattle and I’d have to wait.
“Now we’ve been told there will definitely be no work until at least early February.
“Many of us have families and mortgages and we can’t keep waiting.
“Some have already given up and left to try their luck at (new processor) AMG in Dandenong.
“We were told at the time that we could start taking annual leave or the sick leave we’d accumulated, but most of us have run out of both now.”
As well as representatives of the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU), who facilitated the meeting between management and staff; an officer from Centrelink was also present to explain people’s entitlements.
It was a chilling prospect for many who are simply keen to get back to work.
At issue, according to the firm’s CEO, Jacky Jiang, has been the high price of cattle, loss of overseas’ markets to cheaper competitors and some unique financing challenges experienced by Tabro’s owners, the huge China-based firm, the Foresun Group.
Industry sources locally say the firm owes stock agents and individual beef producers hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of dollars and have been blocked from buying cattle while their financial malaise is sorted out.
Mr Jiang admitted after the meeting that there were a lot of arrangements that needed to be put in place before meat processing could start again.
Speaking to the Sentinel-Times last Friday he said that while workers were understandably anxious about their jobs and the delay in recommencing work, they had accepted the apology and explanations given by management.
“We said we will start back on Wednesday, February 3. That’s pretty much all I can tell you,” Mr Jiang said.
He confirmed what he had told workers at the meeting that there would need to be a slow and steady build up to full capacity but also that the owners were committed to a restart at Lance Creek.
“We said we understand the situation they are in and that we are doing our best.”
He also agreed there was a plan to recommence work at Lance Creek first, and to get that settled in before reopening the firm’s plant at Moe.
Lance Creek can process up to 500 head of stock daily and, under Chinese ownership since April 2014, had been expected to boost that number to 1000 then 1500 following a $26 million investment in infrastructure.
But those grand plans must now be in doubt, along with the jobs.
Local stock agents have suggested a way out for Tabro, saying the industry would welcome them back if they repaid their debts and paid for the stock up front, at least initially.
Mr Jiang said he hoped to have the financial issues in order by mid-week this week.
Representatives of the AMIEU want to see Tabro back operating again.
“This is a regional town and we need the work here. I’m guessing there wouldn’t be too many other jobs locally, and if you’ve got to go somewhere else for work it’s going to be a long commute,” AMIEU Secretary Paul Conway said at the meeting.
He lamented the company’s poor communications with its employees to date and the impact the problems were having on them but expressed the view that there was only one option when the late Ted Brorsen sold the business two years ago.
“The Chinese came in and bought it and put some money into it and you’ve got some work out of it. It’s a difficult situation now but we hope it gets better.”
The AMIEU has petitioned both the State Minister for Industry, Lily D’Ambrosio, and her Federal counterpart to intervene on the workers’ behalf but so far without effect.