The manufacturing union has accused South Pacific Laundry of a “disgraceful” decision to stand down 180 workers in Bankstown, warning that visa-holders’ ineligibility for jobkeeper wage subsidies will leave them destitute.
In an email on 24 April, South Pacific announced that from Tuesday 28 April 80% of staff at the site – one of the largest laundries in the southern hemisphere – would be stood down without pay for an unspecified period of time.
Emails, seen by Guardian Australia, show the company confirmed to the Construction Forestry Mining Manufacturing and Energy Union’s manufacturing division that it had decided to stand down employees on work visas as they don’t qualify for the $130bn jobkeeper wage subsidy program, and would then look to stand down part-time staff.
Before the announcement, South Pacific Laundry had told the union the move was triggered by a drop in work, with tonnage down from 700 to 100 per week, due to hotels and hospitality customers shutting up shop during Covid-19 restrictions.
Of 236 workers at the Bankstown site, only 53 qualify for the $1,500 fortnightly jobkeeper payment and 183 are ineligible because they are visa-holders.
But on Wednesday the South Pacific Laundry chief executive officer, Andrew Robson, disputed that it had targeted visa-holders, telling Guardian Australia “we have continued to employ a mix of both employees who are eligible for jobkeeper and employees who hold a temporary visa”. Robson declined to answer questions about how many visa-holders were stood down.
One Nepalese worker at the laundry, who declined to be named for fear he could not return to his job, told Guardian Australia the company was “unable to give us work because of the downturn in the business” but “they are still giving the work to people who are jobkeeper eligible”.
“I’m thinking about releasing my super at the moment,” he said. “After that I don’t know … it’s hard to say how I’m going to survive.”
With just $6,000 in superannuation and his wife a casual employee also currently out of work, the laundry worker said it would be difficult to make ends meet.
“[The number of] migrants and students working there, there are more than 100 affected.
“We’re hoping something is going to happen for us – to pay groceries, bills and rent. They’re all accessing super, but many people don’t have much.”
The CFMEU manufacturing division New South Wales district secretary, Michael Aird, said: “The treatment of these workers is disgraceful.
“These are hard-working families, they have been paying their taxes for years. They deserve a fair go.”
Aird called on the company to reverse the stand-down and for the government to “fix the faults in the jobkeeper scheme”.
Robson said the restructure “has been driven entirely by our immediate focus to continue servicing our healthcare and remaining hospitality customers while keeping a positive mindset on how we can emerge from this downturn with our workforce largely retained”.
“With the assistance of the jobkeeper scheme, more than 20% of our employees remain at work, while the number of employees stood down will be constantly reducing as business conditions improve.”
Robson said the restructure had “endeavoured to consider the well-being of everyone” and noted stood-down employees continue to accrue entitlements and have other benefits.
On 24 April the company told workers it was “extremely saddened that the government decisions to keep us all safe have had such an unfortunate impact on your life and our business”.
Unions and Labor have complained that one million short-term casuals and 1.1 million temporary visa-holders are ineligible for the jobkeeper scheme, which has so far reached 3.3 million employees out of a target of 6 million due to exclusions and cashflow issues with employers expected to stump up the first month’s payments.
“Fixing the scheme is the right thing to do not just for the workers being cast aside but for our communities and for the economy,” Aird said.
While some states and territories have begun offering support packages to international workers and students, the federal government has offered nothing beyond early access to superannuation and relaxation of some visa conditions.
Andrew Giles, Labor’s multicultural affairs spokesman, said “this is exactly why we need greater support for temporary migrants trapped in Australia during this pandemic”.
“We can’t allow people to fall through the cracks and become destitute,” he told Guardian Australia.
“The Morrison government can fix this situation with a stroke of a pen by expanding the eligibility of the jobkeeper payment. Scott Morrison must fix the gaping holes in his wage subsidy scheme, now.”