Industrial action forces six-day Oakey closure

Jon Condon 30/04/2012

Industrial action by Australian Meat Industry Employees Union members has led to a six-day stoppage at Nippon Meat Packers Australia’s Oakey abattoir on Queensland’s eastern Darling Downs.

Oakey is one of the larger and most modern export plants in the country, utilising about 750 staff to process up to 1200 head of grain and grassfed cattle daily.

In a statement, Oakey management said it had been in discussions with the AMIEU consultative committee since May last year an attempt to finalise a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement for the plant.

“It is unfortunate and frustrating that an agreement has not been reached, despite the company conceding a number of items listed in the log of claims presented by the AMIEU,” plant general manager Pat Gleeson said.

The company had repeatedly maintained that productivity offsets were required for the plant to remain competitive with domestic and international competitors, and unfavourable trading conditions particularly in the grainfed business could not be sustained.

“The company believes an acceptable percentage increase within the EBA can be achieved, but not without the workforce accepting that some productivity improvements are required to offset any increase in processing cost,” Mr Gleeson said.

“The high Australian dollar is proving to be particularly damaging to manufacturers and exporters like Oakey, but management is determined to ensure the long-term viability of the company, whilst remaining an employer of good-standing within the community and with its workforce,” he said.

The AMIEU gave notice last Friday week that the stoppage would start on Friday April 27, concluding this coming Friday, May 4. It has since advised the company that a further 24-hour stoppage will occur on Friday, meaning work will not resume until Tuesday, May 8 at earliest (Monday being a public holiday).

The strike action followed an original advice on April 19 that AMIEU members planned to conduct a two-hour Protected Industrial Action stoppage on April 27, to which the company responded by deciding to cease processing as of April 27.

The AMIEU then gave notice that it planned to call the week-long stoppage. The union refused to allow members to bone-out Thursday's kill, leading to a situation where management is understood to have deboned Thursday's carcase beef themselves. 

“This decision is regrettable, but the company intends to continue to negotiate in good faith to bring about an acceptable outcome that addresses the fundamental issue of productivity with its workforce,” Mr Gleeson said.

The action brings to an end a remarkably quiet period in industrial relations in the processing industry, with little significant action being taken by either employer or employees for some years. The most recent event of any consequence that comes to mind was a stoppage at the JBS Brooklyn plant in 2009, involving cold store personnel only, a source told Beef Central today.

At this point there has been no formal response from Oakey management to the AMIEU’s action. It is too early to determine yet whether the dispute is likely to end-up before a Fair Work Australia hearing.

While there are a number of significant processing plant EBAs falling due over the next six months, it is also too early to foreshadow whether the processing sector may be heading into another period of industrial unrest.

Australia still lags badly behind major international processing competitors like Brazil and the US in terms of processing productivity, and any upcoming EBA discussions are likely to include greater productivity clauses in exchange for financial benefits, a contact said.


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