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Receiver talks up Hastie prospects

The receiver of engineering company Hastie, which retrenched 2700 staff, says no one was laid off via text text message.

PT1M45S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-1zel2 620 349

Hundreds of Victorian workers received text messages this morning calling them to meetings where they learned they had been stood down without pay after the embattled engineering company Hastie collapsed under an estimated $500 million debt.

Electrical Trades Union state secretary Dean Mighell said many of the 500 workers his union represents in Victoria and South Australia were on an industry-rostered day off today and were informed this morning via text message that the NSW-based company had called meetings around the country after it was placed in voluntary administration.

Bad news ... Worker Mark Guest was on a rostered day off when he got a message on his phone.

Bad news ... Worker Mark Guest was on a rostered day off when he got a message on his phone. Photo: Penny Stephens

In a further blow, the workers have been stood down without pay for 28 days, meaning they cannot access unemployment benefits or redundancy funds because technically they are still employed for that period, Mr Mighell said.

"The reality of losing their job is bad, only made worse because they can't get access to any unemployment benefits or their redundancy because the administrators said that they are technically still employed while not getting paid for 28 days," said Mr Mighell, who met the administrators this morning.

"They [Hastie] say there is a 28-day process they have to go through, and they're saying unofficially that they [his members] will be terminated after that process."

Hasty ... Workers in Victoria received this text message this morning.

Hasty ... Workers in Victoria received this text message this morning. Photo: Penny Stephens

Mr Mighell said he was heading to Canberra this afternoon to discuss the situation with Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten.

Mark Guest, who has worked as an electrician at Watters Electrical based in Port Melbourne for two years, said he received a text message from Hastie just before 7am today - on his rostered day off - advising him to head to the office at 8.30am for a meeting.

At the meeting, all workers were told they had been stood down without pay.

Engineering company Hastie has collapsed under an estimated $500 million debt.

Engineering company Hastie has collapsed under an estimated $500 million debt. Photo: Michele Mossop

‘‘It’s just a bit of a bombshell for all the blokes, because what do you do?,’’ Mr Guest said.

‘‘Basically [at the meeting] they emptied the office, they’re in the middle of changing the locks and all the other staff got kicked out of the office.’’

He estimated there were up to 50 people based at the Port Melbourne headquarters, and about 80 per cent of the workers were aged under 30.

‘‘I’m a little bit older, my mortgage is nearly paid off so I’m probably not in as bad a position as some of the others. But I know a lot of them, they could lose their house in 28 days the way banks are at the moment,’’ Mr Guest said.

‘‘We can’t access unemployment or our redundancy fund. We can’t access any money. Our last pay was on Thursday and that was for the previous week so we’ve all worked a week and there’s no one in the office to pay us now.’’

Mr Guest, from Werribee, said he had been working on the RMIT construction site on the corner of Swanston and A’Beckett streets in the city. He went to the worksite this morning to pick up his tools, as did many of his colleagues.

‘‘At the moment no one’s at the site from Watters. They’ve got about four to five weeks before the site gets handed over, which they can’t hand over now because we haven’t finished it. It will just be dormant, like all the other jobs too.’’

Mr Guest said it was a difficult time for electricians to pick up work.

‘‘It’s going to be really quiet until after Christmas. There’s a lot of construction jobs going, but they’re not at that stage where they need electricians,’’ he said.

‘‘At the moment we’re just in limbo. I am, everyone is.’’

The union will also hold a mass meeting for its members at its Arden Street headquarters in North Melbourne at 10am tomorrow.

Mr Mighell said he believed up to 3000 people were set to lose their jobs across the country, including 500 of his members across Victoria and South Australia who are employed across the Hastie Group to do plumbing, electrical work and mechanical engineering.

"It's a very dark day. It's a very dark day for jobs and a very dark day for thousands of workers in this country. Through no fault of their own they've lost their jobs," Mr Mighell said.

"They can resign and get work with other companies, but in Victoria ... there isn't much work around so the job prospects are really bad."

He said the expected job cuts came as Gina Rinehart was granted an enterprise migration agreement, enabling her company, Hancock Prospecting, to import 1715 workers to help build the $9.5 billion Roy Hill iron ore project in the Pilbara.

"Meanwhile we've got tradesmen in Victoria staring down the barrel of long-term unemployment and just can't get a start," he said.

"I'm off to Canberra this afternoon to have a chat to Bill Shorten just to see if there's not anything he can do in order to free up these workers and their employment status."

Mr Shorten said he was disappointed that potential job losses were the result of poor financial management in the company.

“I understand the independent regulator ASIC is investigating this irregularity and that significant penalties are available to ASIC should they find evidence of malfeasance,” Mr Shorten said in a statement.

A spokesperson for ASIC told BusinessDay that the regulator would not be able to launch in investigation into a ''financial irregularity'' if it was done by an individual.''Our first step would be to assess the complaint. If there was any wrongdoing we would hand it over to the relevant authority, which in this case would be the Queensland police.''

Ian Carson, PPB Advisory chairman of partners, told a media conference that PPB had quickly been contacted by former vendors of Hastie assets about buying the assets back.

In addition to the four companies in receivership that are considered more likely to survive, Mr Carson said he was hopeful that a majority of Hastie's 2700 workers would be able to stay employed.

He added that Friday's announcement of a $20 million accounting irregularity had been the "straw that broke the camel's back", although the company had been in trouble for some time and was "significantly insolvent" by the time of PPB's appointment.

"There is no cash to trade," Mr Carson said in Melbourne, estimating the debt load at half a billion dollars.

Virtually every bank in Australia was a lender to Hastie, Mr Carson said, and a "substantial number of lenders won't get their money back".

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has also been contacted for comment.

With Madeleine Heffernan