Following much publicity and outrage, the Girgarre Heinz tomato processing factory was officially closed on Saturday.
Only 420 residents of Girgarre are aged between 15 and 64, and of those, 146 worked at the factory, so the impact to the community has been the major concern since the closure announcement.
The last of the workers finished up at 7am, and worker Ken Covington told the Bendigo Advertiser the closure felt “more like a funeral.”
“It was pretty sombre, it just felt like a chore going in for the last time,” he said.
Covington has worked at the factory 12 years and is one of the many left unemployed by the relocation of the facility to New Zealand.
“My wife and I used to have cows on a farm in Girgarre but with the drought we both moved to work at the factory,” he said.
“After yesterday we’re both unemployed, and so is our son-in-law who worked there.”
Chris Lloyd, who had worked there nearly two decades said the company did not provide enough time for workers to complete training in another job.
Heinz announced the closure in May last year, blaming the supermarket dominance of the big two for pushing it out of business.
In August, the company’s chief financial officer and executive vice president, Arthur Winkleback told US analysts that the demise of many Australian companies can be attributed to the supermarket war and said they have created an “inhospitable environment” for local manufacturers.
Then, in November, it again come out swinging in the debate over supermarket private label products, blaming the closure of one and downsizing of two of its Australian factories on the supermarket dominance.
Executive chairman, chief executive and president, William Johnston took aim, telling investors the company has had to overhaul its business strategy in Australia to deal with the supermarket dominance of Coles and Woolworths.
”The reality on Australia [is that it has] almost come to the point that it’s … immaterial to us going forward because it has taken such a hit,” he said.
”We are confronting a combination of weak categories, relentless promotional pressure and growing private label, as well as executional issues.”
Less than 20 people will remain at the factory for the clean up operation, according to Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) local organiser Jason Hefford.
Many have had their working hours reduced to part time or casual in other employment, but are yet to secure full time jobs and Hefford said the retraining services offered to workers by Heinz were not enough.
“They could have done a lot more,” he said.
“They chose to just fulfil their enterprise agreement.
“Even with the scholarships they gave out, a lot of that was funded by the government.”
Heinz Australia’s supply chain director Mike Robinson maintains the company is focused on assisting workers, not least through the redundancy packages it is working on.
“Our primary focus over the coming weeks and months will be to support our employees during a difficult time,” Robinson told the Advertiser.
The focus will now be largely on the Goulburn Valley Food Co-Operative,
Covington said his focus, and that of many other workers, had now turned to the local Goulburn Valley Food Co-operative, which bid for the factory with the intention of making the site a hub for manufacturing and tourism.
In August workers in announced plans to start a cooperative with tomato farmers in a bid to save the plant.
About 300 people attended a public meeting to begin a plan to take responsibility for the factory from Heinz.
The ABC reported in December that APC Ardmona has offered jobs to those without work due to the closure, which committee spokesman, Les Cameron, said the will keep people occupied until the co-op is ready to start production.
Covington is optimistic about the co-operative and believes it could be the chance to save the community.
“When one door shuts another one opens,” he said.
“We’re hoping the co-op can take over the site and keep jobs and profits in the local community.”
On behalf of the AMWU, Hefford said it has high hopes for the plan also.
“We’re hopeful that something will get up,” he said.
“It’ll depend on how much equipment is left.
“If Heinz just leave a shell of a factory, what is it worth really?
“My understanding is that Heinz is going to take all the equipment.”
Image: The Age