ALMOST half the staff at an inner-city gourmet food manufacturer - which makes food for Ikea, Qantas, Costco and other high-profile clients - have spoken out about alleged extreme bullying in their workplace.
Eighteen staff out of 38 at Glendal Foods in Brunswick have accused their employer of allowing bullying to go unchecked, despite numerous complaints and the involvement of a trade union.
The alleged bullying among the staff, most of whom speak little English, is said to be so intense that one worker harmed herself two weeks ago. She was admitted to the Western Hospital, where doctors later asked WorkSafe to become involved. The authority is now conducting an investigation.
Another staff member alleged a heavy trolley was pushed into her belly while she was pregnant.
The 18 staff took the unusual step of speaking publicly about the alleged bullying, which they said had gone on for at least six years, because they hoped doing so would help their situation. The workers said management at the plant had, among other things, allowed a senior staff member to:
■Regularly scream at them and make sexual and personal comments.
■Tell workers they needed to give 48 hours' notice if they wanted to take sick days.
■Demand staff work overtime on any day, without any notice.
■Tell any casual worker who became full time they must ''celebrate'' by buying lunch for the entire workplace, or buying a supervisor a gift.
■Ban any contact with the company's owner.
■Keep the wages of some employees for up to eight weeks.
Qantas and Ikea confirmed on Friday that Glendal Foods was among their suppliers but declined to comment further. Costco could not be contacted for comment yesterday.
Glendal Foods makes items such as samosas, filo pastries, soups, curries and casseroles for its many clients.
It is owned by Chandra Kanodia, a chef who opened the Phantom India restaurant in Swanston Street, Carlton, in the 1970s.
Most of the bullying complaints centre on one supervisor, Van Phan.
In the most serious case, staff alleged Ms Phan had succeeded in pressuring most to pay her - in cash - 10 per cent of a backpay payment made to them in July after they signed a new workplace agreement.
Ms Phan declined to discuss the allegations on Friday, although she said employees who gave her a cut of their backpay had given it as a gift. ''They were happy to do that,'' she said.
After the union became involved, the company asked Ms Van to voluntarily pay back this money.
One employee, Hiep Nguyen, said she had been instructed, when given a full-time job with the company, to shout the entire factory lunch, because ''it was the rules''.
Ms Nguyen said she was threatened with the sack if she did not do so.
''I am a new arrival. I came to Australia legally. I work, and pay tax and try to be a good citizen. But because I have really limited English, I don't know a lot of rules. And for someone who has been here a bit longer than me to make my life really difficult is not fair for me,'' she said through an interpreter.
Few Glendal Foods employees had been members of the National Union of Workers (which covers some food manufacturing) until August, when a complaint was made to the union by Ms Nguyen, who also contacted the federal government's Fair Work Ombudsman, which in turn referred her to WorkSafe.
Another employee, Quyen Le, said she had been regularly yelled at by Ms Phan, who had also pushed a heavy trolley into her belly while she was pregnant, so forcefully she thought her baby had been harmed.
All of the employees alleged Mr Kanodia knew the bullying was happening but ignored it.
Mr Kanodia declined to discuss the allegations, although he said WorkSafe was investigating. ''WorkSafe will take care of this; the allegations are going to be sorted out by them,'' he said.
Asked why so many of his staff had complained of bullying, he said: ''They are all union members, are they? That says something, don't you think?''
Later, he issued a brief statement saying his company was concerned about the matter and taking it very seriously.
National Union of Workers organiser Monique Segan has regularly met staff at Glendal Foods since August.
She said the bullying was among the most extreme the union had seen, and that raising it with Glendal Foods had exacerbated problems. After this, the workers had decided to tell their story publicly.
The case will throw a spotlight on laws passed last year by the Baillieu government that were aimed at tackling workplace bullying but that the state opposition says are doing little to help protect the most vulnerable.
Opposition spokesman on WorkCover Robin Scott said the community had made it clear there was no tolerance for bullying in workplaces, but that the Baillieu government's anti-bullying laws had failed to result in any prosecutions.
Government spokeswoman Fiona Telford said the legislation introduced last year gave police more powers to investigate and had made clear that threats and abuse could now be prosecuted. Labor had failed to introduce any laws like it, she said.