The Guardian June 6, 2001


Meatworkers' victory

by Andrew Jackson

After a three-year battle, workers at G&K O'Connor meatworks in Packenham, 
Victoria, stand to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in backpay, 
following a Federal Court ruling that they were being paid under an 
incorrect award. The Australian Meat Industry Employees' Union (AMIEU) says 
the company colluded with then Federal Industrial Relations Minister Peter 
Reith on how best to rip-off its workers.

The dispute began in late 1998 when O'Connor's attempted to reduce workers' 
wages by 17 per cent by moving them on to individual contracts.

When that failed the workers were subjected to one of the longest lockouts 
in Australian industrial history  nine months between March and November 
1999.

Upon their return to work, O'Connor's would only pay them under a Federal 
"safety net" award, offering up to $500 a week less than their previous 
enterprise agreement.

After a two-year court battle, Justice Conti of the Federal Court ruled 
that the Union was correct in its argument that the original 1992 Agreement 
still applied.

He found that although the meatworkers' Agreement had expired, it would 
remain valid until a new agreement was reached. O'Connor's action of 
reverting to the Award, which offered workers up to 60 per cent less than 
their agreement was incorrect.

This ruling may have ramifications for workers across Australia whose 
enterprise agreements have ended, but employers have not signed a new 
agreement.

The Secretary of the AMIEU, Graham Bird, said, "The decision handed down by 
the Federal Court is a huge win for our members, and a vindication of the 
Union's position.

"There are many families whose livelihoods have been depending on this 
decision and they will hopefully finally see some financial relief after 
two years of hardship and intimidation imposed on them by their employer."

Mr Bird said that the decision raised question about the role of the 
Federal Government in the dispute. Like many other acts of industrial 
bastardry over the past few years, the trail of slime in this dispute can 
be followed all the way to Canberra.

Mr Bird pointed out, "There are still more than 750 secret documents in 
Tony Abbott's office on this dispute.

"We believe these documents would reveal government advice and assistance 
to this employer.

"Given this decision today, there are serious questions to be asked about 
whether the Federal Government has given advice to an employer that has 
assisted them in fundamentally breaking the law in order to cut workers' 
wages and conditions."

Justice Conti of the Federal Court will rule next month on the exact amount 
of backpay owed to the workers, with O'Connor's saying they are examining 
"all their options".

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