HE’S the country’s richest person with a personal fortune of 3 billion, but Anthony Pratt’s workers are crying foul over a stingy decision to take away their cheap sausage rolls, meat pies and hot chips.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union is battling cardboard packaging giant Visy in the Fair Work Commission over a decision to shut down two staff canteens at its Broadmeadows site in December last year.
The canteen, operated by facilities services company Spotless, sold “rolls, sandwiches, hot meals, burgers, pies and sausage rolls, chips, sweets and other food and drink items”.
Visy subsidised the canteen at an estimated cost of more than 50,000 a year.
The company attempted to negotiate with employees to close the canteen during bargaining last year, but nothing was decided and the agreement was entered into in July.
A proposal to close the canteen was voted down in September, but in October Visy announced it had decided to close it anyway and the contract with Spotless was terminated.
Since the canteen closed, Visy has provided “subsidised vending machines with snack, drink and meal options, food vans delivering food to site twice daily, two new Saeco coffee machines and updated cooking facilities in the canteen area, including new microwave ovens, pie warmers and toasters”.
It has also offered a 50 per cent off trial of ‘YouFoodz’ meals daily.
Employees argue the new food arrangements are “generally more expensive” than the old canteen, provide less variety and are less convenient, although the coffee is cheaper and coffee sales have increased.
They want the old canteen back.
The AMWU argues Visy was not entitled to shut down the canteen as it was defined as a “facility” under the enterprise bargaining agreement.
The relevant clause states that the company “shall not modify, remove or reduce any service or facility that has been provided without the agreement of the majority of employees and their representatives, provided that the facilities are not being deliberately misused, abused, damaged or defaced by employees”.
Visy’s position was that the clause “does not apply to the canteen in relevant respects and it has managerial prerogative to close the canteen and substitute it with an alternative food service”.
Fair Work Commissioner Sarah McKinnon sided with the union.
“There is no dispute that the canteen area and equipment would meet the description of ‘facility’ and I agree,” she said.
The word “service”, she said, was “necessarily broad, and as Visy accepts, it would cover the supply of food through a canteen”.
“That said, it seems unlikely that, in seeking to preserve the benefit of the canteen for employees, the parties intended every change to the canteen area and every canteen service to be approved first by a majority of employees,” she said.
“An obvious example is a change in the number of pie warmers or vending machines, representing both a modification, and in the case of replacing an old piece of equipment, presumably also a removal.
“Such a restrictive approach seems to me to be inconsistent with the objectives in clause 4 of the agreement including to achieve productivity gains, continuous improvement and an open and consultative decision making approach.
“The better view is that on its terms, clause 13.2 prevents Visy from modifying, removing or reducing the canteen and related services in such a way as to reduce the value of the benefit to employees.”
The question now is whether the food service contract with Spotless falls under “permitted matters” as defined by section 172 of the Fair Work Act.
Ms McKinnon said that issue was “not argued before me in any detail”.
She invited both parties to file submissions on “whether, and the extent to which, the prohibition in clause 13.2 on any modification, reduction or removal of the food service provided by Spotless, or the subsidy provided by Visy, is about permitted matters” no later than September 6.
AMWU organiser Mick Bull said in a statement that “for decades, Visy workers have been able to get a cheap cuppa to get them through those cold mornings”.
“It’s a little luxury that means a lot,” he said.
“The company cannot just ignore the EBA and remove the canteens without the support of the majority of the workers. It’s in the agreement – they just shouldn’t have done it.
“It’s pretty outrageous behavior by the company – they took the canteen closure off the bargaining table during EBA negotiations, and then turned around before the ink had even dried and closed it anyway.”
Mr Bull slammed Mr Pratt over the issue. “I think any reasonable Australian would have an issue with their boss denying them a meat pie for lunch at work,” he said.
“Australia’s richest man is stiffing these workers over a cup of coffee. It’s ridiculous and it’s corporate greed gone mad.
“Let’s be honest, Visy made a meal of it. All the workers want is for their canteens to reopen. It’s not hard. We know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but Visy won’t even let the workers buy one.”