Jindivick is a small town in West Gippsland, just over an hour east of Melbourne. Surrounded by rolling green hills, it’s dairy country. It’s also currently the site of a strike against one of the world’s biggest dairy companies.
Jindi Cheese workers have been picketing their factory since 13 November. The strikers are mostly female and members of the United Workers Union. They have never been on strike before. On the second day of picketing the police arrived at the peaceful gathering in force – a dozen local officers were joined by the public order response team from Melbourne. Union delegate Tammy Norrie told Red Flag “there was like 25 [police] from the city, all in their full riot gear with tasers and everything for 16 women, scary ladies though we are. It was way over the top.”
The company reportedly asked the police to stop the workers blocking the road as well as the factory’s driveway. The picket had successfully stopped trucks coming and going to the site, crippling business. “Most of the truck drivers have been fantastic,” says Tammy, “you kind of give them a quick ‘we’re on strike’, they say ‘what are you on strike for?’, we say ‘to get paid a bit more than 20 bucks an hour’ and they are like ‘what?! that’s bullshit, see you later’. I’m sure at some stage they have had taken strike action so know the importance of not crossing a picket line.”
An undertaking by the union with Fair Work has, for now, put a stop to the workers blocking trucks, but they remain determined. “We’ve been out here for this long, we can’t turn back” says Tammy, “We’re out indefinitely. Everyone has been helping each other. Pay just hasn’t gone up with the cost of living, it’s nowhere near the cost of living. We are just getting further and further behind and we can’t afford to get any further behind. It’s stupid – we’re suffering for a company that doesn’t care about us. You are just a number, it really feels like you are just a number.”
The company the workers are suffering for is Lactalis, the largest dairy products company in the world. Lactalis is owned by the fifth richest family in France and has an annual revenue of around €16.5 billion. It supplies dairy products to Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, and bought Jindi Cheese in 2014. Jindi Cheese workers are some of the lowest paid in the Lactalis empire, with some who have worked at the company for ten years being paid as little as $20.68 an hour, just $1.19 above the minimum wage.
Cost of living pressures are central to the concerns of these workers. Tammy says “Most of us are struggling to pay the bills. After a 38-hour week, you take home $650. Your rent is $400. You work that out – there’s only $250 left to pay the rest of your bills, put fuel in the car and food on the table. It’s hard, it’s really hard. Most of us are long term, I’m 10 years. This is one of the biggest dairy companies in the world, worth billions of dollars. It’s crazy that they can’t pay us a wage we can live on. It’s insulting to think that they don’t value us as much as they do workers at the other sites. We work damn hard.”
Unfortunately, the factory is still operating, with some workers scabbing and casuals also being hired to scab. Solidarity has come from other Lactalis sites: “We’ve had a few people from Longwarry come out which has been fantastic. Lemnos workers did a collection for us which I was so happy and surprised about. These are poor people, they are on the same pay as us, and they raised about $300. It’s just fantastic. At one of the other sites in Bendigo someone had some concert tickets and they raffled those off for us. We also had a lady from Patties drop in, which is fantastic because they are a union site as well and they got wind of [our action]. She dropped off a few bags of lollies. I was stoked to know [non-Lactalis] sites were also thinking about us. It’s nice to have that support.”
The strike has pushed the company to agree to some of the workers’ demands, including that casuals be covered by the site rates and conditions. But pay rises have proved harder to win. “What they have offered people” says Tammy “is still really going to be a struggle to live on.” Workers have so far voted down the company’s various pay offers and are asking for a minimum 10 percent pay rise in the first year, and a 30 percent pay rise to bring their rates into line with other Lactalis factories.
Tammy is confident. “It feels good to know that we are going to be making a difference for us and for the others” she says. “For me there is a little bit of resentment against those who haven’t come out... But it feels powerful in a way, and we know they are struggling in there. Everyone out here has had conversations that we wouldn’t normally have. Being out here for the last 10, 11 or more days, we’ve found out more about each other. It’s brought everyone closer together. I think we all have a lot more respect for each other. It’s empowering, it is.”