SPC and AMWU at loggerheads over industrial action in Shepparton

By Rodney Woods

Protected industrial action by union members at Shepparton's SPC factory could result in the loss of one million cans of diced tomatoes, but the union says any losses will be caused by a poor season, not a strike.

The action will happen on March 6 and March 9.

The company has issued a warning, saying at a time when consumers were panic-buying non-perishable food due to the coronavirus, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union action was "selfish and self-serving".

SPC chief executive Rob Giles said the impact on production would see a flow-on effect to the company's ability to deliver locally produced supplies to supermarkets, leaving customers "exposed" at a time when they were most vulnerable.

“While contingency plans are in place, should this action escalate, there is the possibility that this could impact SPC's ability to receive and process fruit during the season, further depleting consumer access to safe, locally produced food,” Mr Giles said.

He said the company was in the midst of the tomato-processing season, which due to drought conditions and resulting high water prices, was already yielding less-than-desirable outcomes.

“To maintain quality, it is imperative that perishables be processed as and when they are delivered from farm gate to the processing plant,” Mr Giles said.

“The proposed action by the AMWU is selfish and self-serving.

“It comes at a time when packaged, local and quality products are at a premium due to the coronavirus.

“Further limiting supply will add to the panic.

“The action will affect the ability of SPC to receive fresh produce at the Shepparton site for an entire day.”

SPC said it has been in negotiations with the AMWU since August 2019 to reach an agreement on its enterprise bargaining agreement and had reached an in-principle agreement with the union in early December.

However, union members rejected the deal and an agreement still has not been reached.

“The SPC CEO’s comments calling protected industrial action ‘selfish and self-serving’ is a disgraceful attempt to play on current public fears about the coronavirus at the expense of workers trying to negotiate a fair deal,” AMWU national food industry secretary Jason Hefford said.

“The truth of the matter is, we could have been closer to reaching an agreement if SPC had been bargaining in good faith the entire time, rather than ignoring workers’ attempts to bargain for their conditions,” he said.

“After the workers voted down the proposed agreement in January, SPC refused to negotiate with its workers until this protected action was agreed to.

“Claims that union actions will cause the loss of product are purely fear-mongering, with the protected actions consisting of three short work stoppages, and a ban on overtime for Monday’s public holiday.

“Any loss of product the company is facing is a result of a bad season and not union activity.

“Negotiations are set to resume later this month.”

Coronavirus-induced panic-buying has seen supermarket shelves stripped of essentials, such as toilet paper and canned goods, across several states.