Wage claim denied

By Country News

Dairy processor Freedom Foods has slammed allegations more than 50 employees have been wrongfully employed under skilled work visas, labelling the claims ‘‘unfounded’’ and ‘‘offensive’’.

The National Union of Workers along with Federal Labor MPs made the claims during an announcement in front of the company’s Pactum Dairy processing plant in Shepparton on Thursday.

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 25percent less than local employed workers on the enterprise agreement that’s here.’’

Freedom Foods managing director Rory Macleod said the company took its workplace obligations seriously with respect to all its workers, including those on working visas and accused the union of trying to ‘‘enmesh’’ them in a political campaign.

‘‘It is very disappointing for all of us at Freedom Foods that the union has promoted these false allegations of underpayment and has been given wage and time data to prove this,’’ he said.

‘‘Freedom will continue to need a highly skilled and dedicated workforce to ensure that it successfully executes its plans for the expansion of the Shepparton facilities.’’

Federal Member for Murray Damian Drum hit back at the union’s claims, saying they were ‘‘callous’’ and ‘‘unscrupulous’’ and slammed the union for saying Freedom Foods was ‘‘undermining the whole dairy industry’’.

‘‘It’s a joke to say workplace practices have any relation to the milk price a company pays or the wider industry,’’ he said.

Mr Drum said he first met with the union two years ago and when an attempt was made to meet with him again earlier this year he was forced to reschedule.

He said when he later attempted to set a new time for the appointment the union declined to meet with him.

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

‘‘The reason there are overseas workers on skilled migration visas is because of this issue in regional Victorian (areas) 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.’’