STAFF impacted by the catastrophic fire at Thomas Foods International’s Murray Bridge export beef and lamb processing plant in South Australia earlier this month are being redeployed, as the company navigates its way through the early stages of recovery.
As first reported in this article on January 4, fire engulfed the TFI Murray Bridge boning room after welding sparks during maintenance work caused insulation material to ignite, causing tens of millions of dollars’ worth of damage.
As part of the initial stage, 340 Murray Bridge employees have now started work at the company’s Lobethal lamb processing facility, about an hour’s drive away, closer to Adelaide. The company expects another 70 positions to be made available at Lobethal in the short term.
Production levels at Lobethal will double under a plan to establish two daily shifts, during the Murray Bridge closure period.
TFI is also in the process of creating about 150 new positions at its Tamworth (NSW) lamb facility for employees, effective immediately. This is in addition to a current recruiting campaign in place in Tamworth for local residents seeking to join the company.
Lamb production through TFI Tamworth is expected to rise 20 percent during the Murray Bridge closure.
More than 90 staff remain employed at Murray Bridge, working in specialist areas within TFI’s operations unaffected by the fire.
“Our company and people have been truly tested these past weeks but we are a resilient and determined team,” TFI managing director Darren Thomas said in a statement.
“There are no easy solutions in a difficult situation such as this. To find new positions for the majority of our 900-strong permanent workforce so soon after the fire is testament to the outstanding efforts of everyone involved. This shows what can be achieved when industry, government and communities work together for a common goal,” he said.
“We have met with our insurers and we are now in the initial stages of planning for a rebuild of our Murray Bridge operations. We are committed to Murray Bridge and while it is too early to provide further detail on what may be required, the rebuild process could take between 12 and 24 months,” he said.
Demolition work on site has already begun and TFI pledged to keep the community informed as plans unfold for “bigger and better Murray Bridge operations.”
In the meantime, increased production levels at TFI’s other processing plants are helping to manage customer requirements.
“We are working closely with local government in Lobethal and Tamworth where we have received a very positive response to the employment opportunities and broader economic benefits in both regions,” Mr Thomas said.
“Ever since the outstanding actions of the first staff responders on the night of the fire, our focus has been on our workforce. TFI will be offering support to employees in their transition to new positions as well as providing access to services for those who will no longer be with the company,” he said.
“We can’t say for certain how many staff will eventually take up new positions with the company but from our discussions with various organisations, we’re confident that there are employment opportunities for workers – whether with us or with other local businesses that have pledged their support to offer jobs.”
“Ultimately it’s about maximising the employment opportunities for everyone affected by the Murray Bridge fire and working together as an industry and community at this challenging time. As a company we remain fully committed to a positive future,” Mr Thomas said.
Second large meat processing fire in 12 months
The TFI Murray Bridge fire is the second large meat processing industry fire in Australia in a little over 12 months, after the Swickers Pork processing facility near Kingaroy in Queensland was destroyed by fire before Christmas, 2016. Swickers was the largest pork processing plant in the southern hemisphere, employing around 600 staff. That fire destroyed the plant’s chillers, boning room and export distribution centre.
SunPork has continued to operate on site since the fire, with the Swickers kill-floor left intact, allowing about 140 staff to be relocated to work at a temporary boning room at Ipswich, in the state’s southeast.
In September, the Queensland Government provided support for a $100 million expansion and jobs drive as part of the Swickers recovery. The Government’s Jobs and Regional Growth Fund provides one-off financial assistance ranging from $100,000 to more than $10 million in either direct grants or relief of state charges such as payroll tax and stamp duty).