Another company gobbles worker entitlements
by Peter Mac Mining company Hillgrove has sacked 90 of its NSW employees who now join the long list of workers robbed of superannuation and other legal entitlements as the company slides into bankruptcy. The plug was pulled on Hillgrove by the board of Tronoh Mines, whose parent company, the Malaysia Mining Company earned $200 million last year, but has no legal obligation to pay the Hillgrove employees' entitlements. The Federal Government has expressed its deep regrets for the plight of the Hillgrove workers, but has stopped short of forcing the company to pay employees their entitlements. "Employers have an obligation to pay workers' entitlements", observed Federal Employment Minister Tony Abbott meekly. Although the Government has stated that it would "stand in the employees' shoes and try to get [the Hillgrove employees'] money back", in reality the government is simply spending taxpayers' money to partially compensate employees. It will only pay a fraction of the outstanding $350 million (to a maximum of eight weeks wages, and no superannuation). In reality the implied threat of legal action, even if acted upon, has virtually no chance of success under current legislation. The theft of workers' entitlements during retrenchment is a common practice. The phenomenon of disappearing entitlements is similar to the former widespread theft of money from solicitors' trust funds. This practice died back after the introduction of legislation requiring legal firms to immediately place funds entrusted to their care in secure investments to which the firms do not have access. However, in reality neither federal nor state governments have shown the slightest interest in legislation to protect workers' entitlements, and have actively opposed campaigns for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union's "Manusafe" system of regular entitlement payments into a secure fund. Hillgrove was the biggest single employer in the northern NSW Armidale area, and support companies also generated considerable employment opportunities. The sackings will deal a huge blow to the local community. A receiver has been appointed, and the company's operations are to continue ticking over with a skeleton staff. The company had been making consistent losses, but the planned construction of a new antimony plant later this year was expected to turn the mine into a major profit maker. However, in May last year, Tronoh Mines acquired a major shareholding in the company, in a deal which gave it total ownership of the rights and property of the mine. It would appear that for Tronoh's backers the immediate opportunity to help itself to the mine's assets and the employees entitlements simply outweighed the long-term benefits of paying for a more productive enterprise.