The role of a butcher at Woolworths stores in the ACT and parts of NSW is changing to one that doesn't chop and pack meat, a move the meat union says could lead to a permanent loss of skills.
Staff butchers at the supermarket will move from behind-the-scenes to front-of-house and a job in customer service when the supermarket rolls out plans to truck in pre-packed meat from a central facility.
Chris Clark, meat organiser for NSW/ACT branch of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, said he was concerned how the changes could hurt butchery as a trade and a skill.
Mr Clark, a former supermarket butcher, said one member who worked for Woolworths had contacted him in the last two weeks on news he could be moved to work on produce if redeployed under the changes.
"He said, 'I don't want to be packing lettuce, I'm a tradesman'," Mr Clark said. "That's what people forget. I'm a qualified tradesman, we're just as important to the country as a plumber."
The union disagreed with the change, but while it understood the company had to move on, "they've also got to realise that once they've lost this skill, they've lost it forever".
Mr Clark also feared that once butchers moved to a customer service or shelf-packing role, their jobs would become less skilled and so less secure.
When asked what was driving the change, a Woolworths spokesman said it was in part due to a struggle to find and retain staff butchers, particularly in regional areas.
NSW/ACT secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee's Union, Bernie Smith, acknowledged it could be tough to find people who could financially see through a four year apprenticeship.
He said Woolworths and the union were working to make trades more "attractive to young people" with updated agreements, while the priority with the butcher changes was minimising impact on workers.
The changes at Woolworths meant four butcher jobs dropped to two in Cooma, and 68 to 54 in the ACT.
Under the supermarket's plans, meat will be cut and vacuum-sealed at a site in Victoria before being sent to stores, where a butcher's role will be mostly to advise customers on meat selection.
A Woolworths spokesman said the company was building nine new in-house butcher shops within the ACT and another in Queanbeyan, but the changing job description meant fewer staff were required.
"This will mean some changes for team members including in some cases asking them to work more closely with customers," the spokesman said.
"As always when there are changes, we work with team members to ensure the best possible outcome. We'll be working with affected team members where appropriate to ensure they have opportunities in other parts of the store or in the wider Woolworths Limited business."
Woolworths also moved to reassure members of the public that it was not making changes to where it sourced meat, which would continue to be Australian grown.
The supermarket has already rolled out the system of pre-packing meat at central locations and then freighting it to stores in Victoria and Western Australia.
The Victorian facility serviced Victoria, the ACT, parts of South Australia, parts of NSW.
Construction of the in-house butcher shops are expected to roll out over the next 12-18 months, the spokesman said, while affected staff had been advised of the changes over the past two weeks.