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SPC calls for end to union action as virus puts pressure on production

Protected industrial action by union members at the Victorian SPC factory could leave customers ‘exposed’ amid coronavirus panic, the company has said.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) members plan to take an hour off work to strike on Friday and not work the public holiday Monday as they try to negotiate a pay deal with the factory’s new owners.

SPC and the AMWU have been in negotiations since August 2019 about its enterprise bargaining agreement and had reached an in-principle agreement with the union in early December, however, members rejected the proposed agreement in January and a deal has still not been reached.

SPC issued a warning on Thursday saying at a time when consumers are panic buying non-perishable food due to the coronavirus, the AMWU action is “selfish and self-serving”.

SPC CEO Rob Giles said the impact on production will 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 are most vulnerable.

“Whilst 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,” Giles said in a statement on Thursday.

The company was sold by Coca-Cola Amatil for $40 million in June 2019 to Melbourne-based Shepparton Partners Collective. The joint venture company comprising Perma Funds Management and The Eights has domestic and international experience in food, supply chain, finance, retail, agri-business and technology.

SPC is in the midst of the tomato processing season, which due to drought conditions and resulting high water prices, is already yielding less than desirable outcomes.

“To maintain quality, it is imperative that perishables be processed as and when they are delivered from farmgate to the processing plant,” 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 AMWU said in a statement to Inside FMCG that its members have been negotiating to keep their existing conditions, with a basic cost of living adjustment but that new owners, Sheparton Partners Collective, have been unwilling to accept this.

AMWU National Food Industry Secretary, Jason Hefford, called Giles’ comments a “disgraceful attempt to play on current public fears about the Corona Virus at the expense of workers trying to negotiate a fair deal”.

“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,” Hefford said.

“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 3 short work stoppages, and a ban on overtime for Monday’s public holiday.@

In recent days, consumers have stripped supermarket shelves of essential items such as toilet paper and canned goods with many toilet paper manufacturers including Kimberly-Clark stepping up production to meet demand.

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