Major retailers should be blamed for the collapse of transport company 1st Fleet overnight, which has left more than 600 workers across Australia out of a job, according to the Transport Workers Union.
The union's national secretary Tony Sheldon said supermarket giants such as Coles dominated the market and forced down prices across the transport industry, which ‘‘squeezed the life out of Australian truckies and their suppliers’’.
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'Aim is to get them all work'
A company owner drives his bus to the 1st Fleet site, ready to recruit workers still shocked after learning this morning they'd lost their jobs.
“The pressures which forced 1st Fleet out of business are the same pressures that exist for trucking companies and suppliers across the country,’’ Mr Sheldon said.
‘‘One in three truck movements in Australia are for major retailers such as Coles. This enormous economic power allows retailers to dictate the price they will pay for the transport of their goods.”
However Coles hit back this afternoon, saying 1st Fleet had not worked for the supermarket chain for five years and any suggestion it was responsible for its downfall was ‘‘ridiculous’’.
About 150 employees arrived at 1st Fleet’s Melbourne headquarters in Sunshine this morning for the start of their shifts, only to be handed notices informing them they had been made redundant. An estimated 650 workers look set to lose their jobs Australia-wide.
The company was placed in the hands of administrators de Vries Tayeh on Anzac Day, but the administrators announced the 1st Fleet Group of companies would cease trading at 11.55pm last night.
The sudden move came as a shock to the employees, who said they were told as recently as last week that the administrators were optimistic that the companies would continue trading.
Mr Sheldon said the sackings were ‘‘nothing short of a tragedy’’ for the workforce and their families.
“Many owner-drivers with 1st Fleet have been unpaid for more than eight weeks and they now face an uphill struggle to secure what they are owed from creditors,’’ he said.
‘‘Employees with 1st Fleet will be required to wait several weeks until they can secure their entitlements. Since the administration was announced last week, the workforce has been provided with little or no information.”
He said major retailers were putting a strain on farmers and small businesses across Australia and pocketing the profits.
‘‘It is families and communities who suffer while the big end of town gets richer,’’ he said.
However Jon Church, a spokesman for Coles, said the union was being ‘‘opportunistic’’ was misleading members and their customers by making false allegations.
A lot of guys have got wives and kids at home and we’ve all got a mortgage. It isn’t good.
‘‘1st Fleet does not work for Coles and has not done so for more than five years so any suggestion that we are in some way responsible for the sad collapse of the company is ridiculous,’’ Mr Church said.
“Coles works with a number of transport providers large and small. We pay fair rates and we pay on time.
These businesses rely on a strong and successful Coles because that provides them with increased orders, job creation and security and the ability to plan and invest in their future.
‘‘The TWU should talk to transport companies that work with Coles rather than playing on the fears of vulnerable workers at a company with whom we have no relationship in a bid to boost their membership.”
Recruiters milled at the locked gates of the Sunshine site this morning as workers were told officially that they no longer had a position with the company, which had been in operation since 1988.
The move to collect workers has left a sour taste with some, with one worker describing recruiters as ‘‘vultures’’ picking over a carcass.
Robert Coustley, the director of Logical Staffing Solutions, drove a bus to the site this morning in a bid to pick up workers still shell-shocked by the news that the company had gone under.
‘‘We've been going for ten years now and we have never kept up with the demand," Mr Coustley said, adding that he would get all the workers a job.
‘‘It's only a matter of time ... they come to us and we start them off casually and three months later they are permanent.
Vince Sasomazniovski, who has worked at 1st Fleet for 12 years, described the recruiters as ‘‘vultures to the pickings."
He is set to start work at another company shortly but others might not be as lucky.
Recruiter Tony Jewson said "if they're manufacturing jobs it's a bit harder but if it's transport-related there's plenty of work".
Mr Jewson said the sacked workers could be earning $32 an hour at other companies such as Toll and Visy.
Lisa, a mother of two with a mortgage, has been with the company for 20 years. "I had a bit of a tear before but it was more for the boys, not the job," she said.
Cameron Stops from the National Union of Workers said many of 1st Fleet’s former staff faced an uncertain future.
"I suspect a lot of these guys will go from secure, full-time, permanent work and end up working in an insecure job through a labour hire agency somewhere," Mr Stops said.
Matt Jennings, a project manager with Tate Tasman Access Floors, said his company had about $60,000 worth of stock at the Sunshine headquarters alone that his workers were now unable to access.
‘‘At this stage we’re not sure what we’re going to do. We’re just trying to get some answers. We have been given a phone number by the guys on the front gate but it is going straight to voicemail.’’
In a statement this morning, the company said the group's "line of funding was not extended due to the director's inability to meet certain pre-arranged commitments".
"Without this line of funding the business could not continue," the administrators said.
"This is a regrettable outcome but de Vries Tayeh are working closely with the Transport Workers Union to assist 1st Fleet's workforce in being placed with other employment...
‘‘Outcomes from these negotiations will become clearer in a matter of days,’’ the administrators said in a statement.’’
Truck driver Paul Dittman said he was two hours into a trip from Melbourne to Sydney last night when he received a call from a forklift driver in Sydney saying the company had ceased trading just after midnight.
He was told he could either continue driving to Sydney, at which point he would be flown home, or he could turn around and drive back to Melbourne.
‘‘When I arrived back at the depot this morning we were all told to leave immediately.
‘‘A lot of guys have got wives and kids at home and we’ve all got a mortgage. It isn’t good.’’
Mr Dittman, who has worked for the company for 11 years, said workers were told as recently as last week that it was expected to take between six and 10 weeks for the administrators to formulate a plan and everyone was confident the group could continue trading.
‘‘To have this happen overnight, a lot of guys are pretty upset,’’ Mr Dittman said.
He said workers were talking with Transport Workers Union representatives at the Sunshine site this morning, and it was unclear whether they would receive their full entitlements.
The Transport Workers Union said it knew nothing of the terminations until this morning.
On its website, 1st Fleet says it is one of the largest privately owned logistics supply chain providers in Australia. It was established in NSW in 1988.