Bega Cheese and in a way the town itself is preparing for unprecedented industrial action as a wide range of staff at the iconic cheese brand push for more money in their pay packets.
“Workers have bargained in good faith and are making reasonable demands at the table,” says Patricia Fernandez, NSW Secretary of the Australian Meat Industry Employees’ Union (AMIEU).
“They have made the historic decision to take industrial action because Bega Cheese refuses to give them a fair pay rise.”
In light of the breakdown in negotiations, Bega Cheese has made an application to the Fair Work Commission to assist in dealing with the dispute.
“We believe that the assistance of an independent third party may help to break the current impasse in negotiations and avoid any impactful industrial action,” Bega Cheese says in a media statement.
“The Company is disappointed that protected industrial action will be taken by the AMWU (Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union) members in the form of a 24-hour stoppage this Friday (September 13) and further industrial actions are planned for next week of shorter durations including an overtime ban and also involving CEPU (Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union) and AMIEU members.”
State Secretary of the AMWU, Steve Murphy says, “The Board of Directors [Bega Cheese] are happy to award themselves a pay rise of 2.7%, but when it comes to the workers who actually manufacture this product, they say that 2.5% is good enough.”
“With a national wages crisis, we expect local employers such as Bega Cheese to acknowledge the important role they play in keeping local economies growing.
“Bega Cheese has relied on the hard work of locals for decades to deliver their iconic Australian product, and should recognise that without workers, there would be no profits.”
In response, Bega Cheese says it believes “that the offer is fair having regard to the current economic environment and the competitive challenges we face in the markets that the Bega NSW factories compete – reducing milk volumes and excess cut and wrap processing capacity in the industry being the most significant.”
“Bega’s strong preference is to continue the negotiations with the aim of reaching an Agreement without industrial action, and call on the unions to put the offer made earlier this week to our employees.”
Unions have flagged further industrial action unless Bega Cheese comes back with a fairer offer on pay.
Justin Page, Electrical Trades Union (ETU) State Secretary, says “All unions are united in the fight for a better deal for Bega and will continue to campaign until workers get the respect they deserve.”
Last year, Bega Cheese generated record revenue – $1.42 billion, up by 13% on the previous year. Earnings were a record $115.4 million. The company boasts around 2000 employees across various sites in Australia.
Locally, jobs at the North Bega processing and packaging plant are sort after and in some respects seen as a right of passage.