Freedom Foods denies skilled worker wrongdoing claim

By Shepparton News

The National Union of Workers along with Federal Labor MPs have alleged more than 50 Freedom Foods employees have been wrongfully employed under skilled work visas.

But the company has strongly denied this was the case.

At an announcement in front of the company’s Pactum Dairy processing plant in Shepparton, Shadow assistant workplace relations minister Lisa Chester said they believed the workers were employed as mechanical engineers, yet the roles done at the plant were anything but.

‘‘There is a shortage of skilled mechanical engineers in this country and it appears that the company is using that as an excuse to bring in workers, to not employ them in that role and to pay them less,’’ Ms Chester said.

‘‘It’s our understanding from the conversations we’ve had (these workers) are paid up to 25 per cent less than local employed workers on the enterprise agreement that’s here.’’

In a statement, a Freedom Foods spokesperson said the company took its workplace obligations seriously with respect to all its workers, including those on working visas.

‘‘The company continues to abide by all laws applying to its operations and visa workers,’’ the spokesperson said.

‘‘Despite union allegations, Freedom Foods is not aware of any underpayment of a single visa worker.

‘‘Freedom is disappointed that the National Union of Workers has taken this course of action at the company’s Shepparton operation when a new enterprise agreement covering all workers, including those on visas, was agreed to overwhelmingly last week by workers, signed off on by the union and approved by the Fair Work Commission.’’

Committee for Greater Shepparton chief executive Sam Birrell said they were confident Freedom Foods had been paying their staff appropriately.

‘‘The reason there are overseas workers on skilled migration visas is because of this issue in regional Victorian and Freedom Foods are not the only one,’’ he said.

‘‘It is very hard to find skilled professionals in the region.

‘‘If the state and federal governments want to help us on this, the best way would be to invest significantly more in our education system, so that we can grow our own talent and our regional manufacturing businesses would love nothing more than that.

‘‘And that’s what state education minister Gayle Tierney in Shepparton today with her announcement about GOTAFE courses is trying to do.’’

The National Union of Workers Victorian dairy lead organiser Neil Smith echoed Ms Chester’s comments and said this was not the fault of the workers.

‘‘We are really concerned that Freedom Foods are undermining the dairy industry in Australia, which has got its own troubles,’’ he said.

Ms Chester and Mr Smith said the allegations came to light in about 2016 and called on Federal Member for Murray Damian Drum to stand up for regional employment.

‘‘These are good jobs, these are dairy processing jobs that we want to see go to locals first and they should,’’ Ms Chesters said.

Mr Drum was contacted for comment and is preparing a response.