For The Labourer is Worthy of His Hire
The Seymour Abattoir Story
I am a farmer producing beef, wool and sheepmeat.
When I came into the industry in 1972 I asked a local
agent what sort of cattle I should produce and at what
age and time of the year they should be sold. The answer
was---"just produce them and when you think they
are ready I will sell them for you".
That is the nonsense which has been driving the meat
industry for a long time. It should be no surprise
to anyone that in 1973 the sale of a 15 month old steer
would pay a station hand 3 weeks wages. In the depth
of the beef crash it took 3 steers to pay one week's
wages. At the moment it is about a steer to 1.5 weeks
It is one of those things which makes one a bit pensive.
In my time as President of the V.F.F. Industrial Association
I had cause to think a great deal more about some industrial
aspects of the meat industry. Farmers tend to get very
terse about sending cattle in, in top condition, and
find that cattle are not wanted because the meat workers
are on strike.
Bill Matthews was running the Seymour Abattoir. He
had created it out of a local butcher's slaughter house
and over almost 20 years built it up to a capacity
of 1,000 sheep and over 100 cattle a day with a rendering
plant attached. He had run foul of the AMIEU largely
for working and doing work for other plants closed
by industrial action. The union demands had become
insistent and he accepted support from the Victorian
Farmers and the National Farmers Federation in 1986
and onwards. An outbreak of industrial action in 1988
caused him to close the plant and to concentrate on
rendering. The bank took control in November 1988.
The NFF refused further assistance. No alternative
finance was available. I had held the view that if
farmers wanted to really do something in the meat industry
they had to have a hand in the operation. By May of
1989 Elinora Properties Pty Ltd had commenced operations.
Bill Matthews was Managing Director. His family and
mine each had a half interest in it. It owed no money.
Lenders were not interested in providing working capital
in an industry which deals with a highly perishable
product, has a very bad record of financial failure,
but more particularly was dominated by a union well
known for being difficult. None of these factors are
Reluctantly we lent money in for working capital and
gave guarantees to enable stock to be bought on tight
credit terms through Stock Agents. We took security
over the plant. The expectations were that we would
be able to reduce our involvement and increase capital
by injection of other farmer's equity as soon as it
became profitable. We also believed that Bill Matthews
deserved continuing farmer support for his almost lone
efforts to provide real resistance to AMIEU demands
for adult wages for youngsters and other conditions
inconsistent with efficient operation: short days and
limitations on throughput.
The management set about re-establishing the business
but after 18 months of huge effort the business could
not continue without further capital. It was not available
in spite of intense searching. An auction sale produced
no bidders and closed. We continued to try to attract
We concluded after many unfruitful approaches that
investors did not believe that a business with a reputation
for standing up to the AMIEU could succeed.
In March of 1991 the Full Court of the Federal Court
rejected the BWlU's appeal in the Troubleshooters Case.
Brian Groves was anxious to put the Troubleshooters
contract labour system into place. I offered him the
opportunity to do it at Seymour. He and his wife came
back to Victoria.
I called a meeting of farmers in April 1991 near Seymour
by obtaining assistance with identifying some who were
likely to be interested in forming a steering committee
to set up an appropriate corporate structure. Out of
that steering committee came the board which has worked
I took Brian to Casino and Murgon to meet the managers
of Co-operatives there running successful meat works.
He started at the abattoir on 1st June.
Then followed agonising decision making and careful
planning which produced The Seymour Meat Processors
Co-operative Ltd. A lease with a rental based on throughput
with the owners and an option to purchase. A Business
Plan. A large public launch to attract membership in
September. An intense works program, mainly financed
by the owners. An underwriting from the NFF and 150
members and $135,000 cash capital. A licence to operate
and a commencement on 4th November using contract labour
recruited and supplied through Troubleshooters were
all put into place. There was a deal of publicity and
huge local support. There was no picket at all.
Brian Groves has described the system as it works
at Seymour in an article and I have his permission
to quote from that.
- "I served as Managing Director of Troubleshooters
Available from 1981 to the end of 1990. When the crunch
came, all our personal assets were propping up the
agency. We consequently lost our home and all our assets,
and when Troubleshooters could no longer afford to
pay me a wage, I moved my family to N.S.W. and cut
timber to pay the rent and feed the family.
- It was at this time that a group of Victorian farmers
approached me, asking if I would help set up a farmer
co-operative to restart the industrially crippled Seymour
Abattoirs with agency contract labour, which would
introduce an alternative labour system into the troubled
meat processing industry.
- As the new General Manager of Seymour Meat Processors
Co-operative Ltd, I offered voluntary unionism to all
workers who applied for positions at the plant. No
worker opted for union membership and the only union
members currently at the plant are the two meat inspectors
who are Commonwealth employees.
- At Seymour there was, from the outset, a clear understanding
on the part of management and worker of the necessity
for performance and accountability. Hourly rates were
offered and piece rates, incentives and profit-sharing
were negotiated. Sixty workers were signed up as contractors
through the agency to fill 35 to 40 daily positions.
A rotating roster was created to allow for genuine
job sharing and natural selection, with encouragement
for skills upgrading provided by management for all
- The enterprise was ready to start. Well, not quite.
Six Government departments or authorities had first
to be satisfied before the Co-operative could begin
- Government bureaucrats seem tied up in knots with
regulations and rules applicable to the meat industry
and have scant appreciation of the necessity for enterprise
expediency or cost and time minimalisation.
- The Public Service Union sent their President to the
abattoir five times in the first two months of operation
supposedly to look after the interests of their two
union member meat inspectors causing unnecessary disruption.
However, the Meat Workers Union did not interfere after
discussions at A.C.T.U. Executive level. There was
no support at Seymour for Wally Curran and his antics.
- Some government officials were apologetic as they
continued their extraordinary interference, vacillation
and deliberation at the plant. However, five months
and $250,000 later - none of which was spent on productive
technological improvements to the plant---the
abattoir was allowed to begin operation in November
- It is not surprising that the Victorian meat processing
industry is in such disarray when you see the activities
of one of Australia's most militant unions conjoined
with costly over-regulation by government bureaucracies.
- The claim is that it is never the fault of the individual
bureaucrat. It's "the system" that he or she must adhere
to. You can never find anybody to take responsibility
for the decision, or the lack of decisions of the system.
Castle-building, insular outlook, little people fiercely
protecting their power base, feather-bedding, over-manning
and lack of accountability typifies the Victorian Meat
Industry as it is today.
- What good has come out of the experiment at Seymour
Abattoir? Well, as General Manager, I am seeing a perceptible
change in worker attitudes. It's more like being the
coach of a team. All the players know what they have
to do and it's my job to coordinate their efforts and
develop a team spirit that eliminates the "us and them"
problems at the abattoir.
- I have found that where the concept of "us and them"
is eradicated from the line of management, workers
steeped for decades in the propaganda of the need for
such division, will create an "us and them" amongst
themselves. Demarcation and disruption is the result.
This, in part, can be eliminated by setting all workers
on the same pay rate with incentives for performance
to encourage the more skilled workers to perform at
a higher level of productivity, rewarding them for
their outcomes in quality and quantity.
- The contracting system can be tailored for each industry
and even each enterprise. The flexibility of the system
encourages initiative and positive operational suggestions
from the workforce, whose primary motivations are more
money, better conditions and security with a company
whose productive success will ensure these rewards.
- The agency contracting system is a High Court-approved
new system of working smarter which benefits the productive
worker and the enterprise equally.
- The system will continue to evolve and improve as
it is applied to a wider range of industries. With
commonsense and good communication, there is now a
productive workforce at Seymour Abattoirs that is highly
motivated and no-one there would entertain a return
to the unionised award system.
- There are a number of radical changes being introduced
at Seymour, some of which have proved to be more commercially
successful than others. The farming community is presently
much debilitated and to achieve the necessary financial
membership and support has been, to say the least,
difficult. Despite the state of Victoria's economy
and particularly given the declining state of the Victorian
meat industry, Seymour Abattoir has established itself
after an expensive and difficult start. With much greater
farmer financial support, it will achieve all the goals
set out in the Co-operative's Business Plan. However,
the labour reform initiatives have already been an
Due to the need to have a profitable business operating
at a satisfactory plant under excellent management
the Board has instituted a pause in its operations
to re-group and fix the deficiencies which have been
There is a new wave of support coming in. The contractors
have volunteered to contribute to the capital out of
earnings. The NFF and VFF have become vociferous and
even cheque flourishing to such an extent that the
Directors can contemplate resumption of operations
to retain the customers it has and keep others now
There is some interest from three overseas sources
looking for products with the expectation that investment
would be required.
The opportunities offered by the Co-operative to the
industry are in a commercial sense very real. For farmers
wanting to make direct contact with butchers shops
or wholesalers it is possible for them to sell carcasses
direct and get the full return including the hide and
by-products. For butchers and wholesalers who want
to buy stock and have it processed and delivered we
can do it. For groups of producers there is an opportunity
to organise selling a branded product from a breed
or district. It is possible to get a more even flow
of stock and market information back to farmers.
While these concepts are not grasped by everyone there
is at last an alternative. There is also an alternative
to the provision of labour from a Union dominated workforce.
It must not be allowed to disappear. The challenge
is out to farmers. Graham Blight, NFF President has
said "If you don't support what is being done at Seymour
don't ever come grizzling to me about the Meat Industry
Membership of the Co-operative is available to "a
person who desires to support innovative methods of
engaging people to perform work."