The launch of the Goulburn Valley Malaysian Association in Mooroopna was an unexpected setting for the politics of industrial relations to rear, but surface it did with the National Union of Workers leading the charge.
Union members were visible in force, led by NUW national president Caterina Cinanni.
Ms Cinanni gave a speech to the crowd of hundreds, imploring them to fight for their rights as workers in the region’s horticultural industry and denouncing what she claimed was systemic wage theft and worker exploitation.
‘‘Many of the people in there from the Malaysian community are farm workers from around Victoria in a lot of the growing regions, and (they) have been spearheading this association,’’ Ms Cinanni said.
‘‘We’ve spent a lot of time with them and they’ve been telling us a lot about their struggles. Many of them are not paid the minimum wage, so they struggle and live in poverty.’’
Ms Cinanni said the NUW had embarked on a push to unionise horticulture workers, especially migrants.
‘‘Our union is a very big rural and regional union. We have workers not just across horticulture, but we also represent the dairy industry and the meat industry — and where those industries are well unionised and organised, paying the minimum wage isn’t an issue,’’ she said.
‘‘But in horticulture where that hasn’t been the experience, many people are paid below the minimum wage. Many people within this hall today (July 1) will be struggling to live on very low pay.’’
Federal Member for Murray Damian Drum, who also addressed the launch, said he was surprised the union had used the occasion as a recruitment drive.
‘‘I certainly didn’t expect the union speeches to be so blatantly seeking to recruit union members,’’ Mr Drum said.
‘‘I suppose what you have to do is acknowledge it only takes one or two employers or one or two poor contracting companies to do the wrong things and all of sudden you give weight to the union movement.’’
Mr Drum said he had spoken to GVMA’s president and told him to pass on any evidence of worker mistreatment.
‘‘I mentioned to the president, Mr Faizal, if this happens in the Goulburn Valley again, you come and see me ... it does not matter what colour is your skin. It doesn’t matter what nationality you hail from. If anyone has been mistreated in their workplace, it needs to be addressed,’’ he said.