- June 5, 2017
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Potatoes for Days: But How Many Can Ballarat Handle?
McCain Foods has invested $57.5 million dollars into a massive upgrade of its Ballarat potato plant. The company—and the Ballarat facility in particular—have a controversial past. However, this move represents an investment of, not just money, but faith in the the Australian manufacturing industry.
While companies responsible for iconic Aussie products—like the Holden Torana and Bonds briefs—have been steadily retreating from Australia in favour of cheaper, foreign manufacturing facilities, McCain’s multi-million dollar project is a hefty investment in their ongoing production in Australia. Plant manager, Karl Thin, estimated this ensures at least another 15 years of operation for the Ballarat facility.
The first upgrade, which involved improving site access via Ring Road, has now been completed. Deputy mayor of Ballarat, Mark Harris, was happy with the flow on effects this would have for all Ballarat’s citizens. As a vital connection to the Ballarat West Employment Zone (BWEZ), freeing up traffic congestion on Ring Road is beneficial to more than just those connected to the potato plant.
While the upgrade is now progressing smoothly and appears to be doing some good in the city, it hasn’t been an easy road.
Last time McCain’s Ballarat facility was in the news
In 2016, during the fledgling stages of the upgrade, industrial action was taken by workers at the manufacturing facility in protest against changes to their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA).
According to the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), workers at the McCain potato plant were being denied annual leave requests, even when they gave as much as eight months notice. Meanwhile, casual employees (of which there were over 100) were receiving fewer shifts than they wished. So employees who wanted time off were being denied while those who wanted more hours, and could’ve filled the annual leave shifts, were also having their requests vetoed.
This, and other issues, led the majority of the facility’s workforce (more than 400 people) to strike. McCain brought in emergency staff from other plants which led to inflammatory claims in the media that they were ‘importing workers.’ The reality was a lot more tame: they brought in seven workers from plants in other Aussie states and New Zealand.
McCain: eager to make amends?
From the workers’ and union’s perspective, is vital for McCain to treat its employees with respect and dignity—and see basic rights, like annual leave, reasonable shift times, pay and conditions—as entitlements, not privileges. McCain appears to have acquiesced to this stance but has proffered an equally important priority to go along with it: keeping manufacturing facilities like the Ballarat potato plant on Aussie soil.
The Ballarat plant has been in operation since 1975. It has a huge shared history with the town and provides hundreds of jobs for the region. According to McCain’s manufacturing director for Australia and New Zealand, Dahlson Forsyth, with their $57.5 million investment, the company is hopeful of improving its relationship with its suppliers and the district it sits in. With foreign competitors a real threat, McCain is staking its claim here at home.
Forsyth wants the Ballarat community to work together with his company to build a sustainable future for manufacturing. Not doing so, he says, will result in dire consequences for everyone.
“Manufacturing in Australia, especially food processing, is under a lot of pressure. The growers, the suppliers and the food processors need to work much more as a partnership and much less as an adversarial relationship.”
What about the potato growers?
According to chairman of the McCain Growers Group (MGG), Chris Stephens, the expansion is a good thing so long as the resultant growth is sustainable for local farmers. Historically, McCain has put pressure on Aussie growers to drop their prices to compete with cheap imports.
“Unless growers could reduce their costs, increase yields and become more efficient they would continue to lose the battle against cheaper imports.”
He did clarify that McCain had not, at that time, imported any potatoes from overseas. However farmers reported a lot of pressure coming from the company to drop their prices. President of the Victorian Farmers Federation, Peter Tuohey reported to the Australian:
“McCain just started quietly phoning a couple of growers, told them the price they would get for the next season and then said to a few more: ‘You can have a bit of the action if you are lucky, but this is the price and you can take it or leave it.’ Then they went around trying to paint the ones they had cut out of the picture completely as bad farmers. Yet those growers are some of their biggest, best and oldest suppliers. It’s nothing but bully-boy tactics.”
Applying this history to the present situation and the hesitance of the MGG to be overly excited about the expansion is understandable. Despite their rocky past with McCain, MGG chairman, Chris Stephens, is tentatively hopeful.
“There is a possibility for an increase in productivity for growers, however that productivity comes at a cost. We can’t produce potatoes at cost price or less than, or only make a few dollars on top. We need to be making a good income so we can spend money on building our farms to sustain that increase in production.”
Just as McCain has expressed hope that the Ballarat community will join forces with them to create an abundant situation for all, the regions growers, and the company’s employees hope McCain will do their part.
“We can only hope the company and the growers can work together to improve each other’s standing and sustainability.”McCain Growers Group chairman, Chris Stephens
The extensive project is expected to be finished by February 2019.