Fresh meat: How major supermarket supplier churns migrant staff to boost profits

William Fardell, 17, is looking for a full-time job in Tamworth but says local young people are being overlooked for jobs in favour of migrant workers.  Photo: Janie Barrett
William Fardell, 17, is looking for a full-time job in Tamworth but says local young people are being overlooked for jobs in favour of migrant workers. Photo: Janie Barrett

One of the largest meat suppliers to Woolworths, Coles and Aldi, is using hundreds of migrant workers, who are living in a network of overcrowded boarding houses in Tamworth.

The company, Thomas Foods International, Australia's largest family-owned meat processing operation, makes use of an army of migrant workers at its Tamworth processing plant. Many of these workers are living crammed into residential homes, with reports of as many as 20 living under the same roof.

Workers say they feel trapped in the houses, and risk losing their jobs by moving out.

Thomas Foods employs large numbers of migrants - estimated at more than 50 per cent of its workforce - despite the New England region having a youth unemployment rate of 19.6 per cent, above the national average of 12.4 per cent.

The company's chief operating officer David McKay said in 2015, he preferred foreign labour because "some Australians lack the work ethic" or failed drug tests.

In March 2014 chief executive Darren Thomas, son of the company's founder Chris Thomas, told a global food conference the company's success was in part due to its use of migrant labour.

"Our business would not be where it is today without the 457 [visa] scheme and later on 417s," he said.

Thomas Foods stands to reap significant financial rewards from employing migrants, many come on working-holiday visas, employed at entry-level or probationary rates, and often have no chance to progress to higher grades of pay because under the terms of their visa, they can only work for one employer for a maximum of six months and are also forced to return home after a year.

Thomas Foods said both permanent employees and labour-hire workers progress through to higher skill and remuneration levels in a short period of time, and it is currently advertising for positions in Tamworth.

At least one local said he would love to take a job at Thomas Foods and was frustrated job opportunities in Tamworth are lost to overseas workers.

"I don't think there are enough jobs available for local people...In the time I've been looking for a job it is almost impossible now [to find a full-time job]," said 17-year-old William Fardell who has been looking for a permanent job in Tamworth since moving there a year ago from Muswellbrook.

"I just really need a full-time job," he said.

Unregistered boarding houses are peppered across the residential suburbs of Tamworth, sitting among family homes and often packed with Korean and Taiwanese workers.

For these workers the journey to Australia begins with a Facebook post advertising accommodation and a "white labour" job paid at legal pay rates.

One Facebook group called the "Tamworth Information Exchange Network" includes posts which promise "all kinds of housing" and "jobs all year round" at the local "lamb factory".

The lamb factory is Thomas Foods' processing plant in Westdale, in the town's north west. It's the biggest employer and considered the largest plant of its kind on the eastern seaboard, processing more than 27,100 head of lamb and mutton per week.

Each day at 3pm, a steady stream of overwhelmingly Asian migrants arrive in a convoy of second-hand cars, with up to four occupants each.

A large truck full of lambs also enters and workers from an earlier shift flow out from 3.30pm.

The company has deep ties to the local community and is supported by the local council.

Earlier this month, Tamworth Regional Council waived four months' worth of wastewater charges and non-compliance fees for Thomas Foods. At the time Tamworth mayor Col Murray said "Thomas Foods had been a really good corporate citizen" and the "largest private employer" in town.

Even one of the figures heading up Barnaby Joyce's reelection campaign in town, long-time family friend Russell Webb, recuses himself from council meetings due to financial ties to Thomas Foods. Cr Webb sells lamb to the company.

Behind the foreign job ads and the Facebook pages are two Tamworth locals: En-Ting Ling, known locally as Frank, and David Gao, an employment agent.

Frank is known as a "house master," operating a number of the boarding houses around town. He works with Mr Gao, who supplies him with the tenants.

But tenants Fairfax Media spoke to say the reality of living and working in Tamworth was not what they expected.

"If you want to get a job you have to live in his house ... if you didn't live in his house you never get into Thomas Foods. You have no choice," one former worker said.

One worker, who did not want to be identified said he paid Frank $100 per week for a bed in a house with three bedrooms. Two of the rooms contained two single beds, the third had two bunk beds and the living room had a mattress on the floor.

"At first they told us everything was okay and they sent us pictures taken years ago. It looked good but the reality was totally different," he said.

Signs of a boarding house can be overlooked, but for the neighbours they are hard to miss. A three-bedroom apartment at Melrose Street in South Tamworth was "trashed" by migrant workers before being vacated about six weeks ago, according to neighbours.

"There were mattresses all over the floor. Sometimes it sounded like there were a dozen people in there," a neighbour said.

A short drive away at Ebony Close in Hillvue, 15 temporary migrants, mostly from Taiwan, some of whom work at Thomas Foods, shared a house with nine-bedrooms and three toilets. Each paid $105 in rent.

"Council turns a blind eye to this," a neighbour said.

In the backyard sat five Coles shopping trolleys, three of them filled with rubbish. Neighbours said their bins were often used without permission.

"The rubbish is always overflowing," one said.

He said the house often has two cars in the garage, another two in the driveway and more still parked on the road.

At another house nearby, seven pairs of shoes sat on the doorstep, which the owner was told had only two occupants. In another still, neighbours remember seeing three fridges being moved in, earlier this year.

Tenants who spoke to Fairfax Media said they paid their rent to Frank. Fairfax Media contacted Frank who denied his houses were overcrowded but admitted to possibly "six or eight" being housed in a single dwelling. The legal limit is five.

"It shouldn't happen - 15 people in one house, it's impossible," he said.

He said he had approval from his real estate agent.

Fairfax media spoke to his real estate agent, S.J. Cole & Co which declined to comment.

Fairfax Media also obtained a 2015 rental agreement, signed by Frank, which shows he was paying around $270 a week for a house in Tamworth's Denne St. Today rents are an average $360 a week and tenants spoken to by Fairfax Media said they paid from $100 to $110 a week to Frank.

Some of Frank's tenants come via David Gao who sources workers for Thomas Foods and runs a Facebook forum together with Frank. Mr Gao works for Ananda Aust Pty Ltd, which supplies Thomas Foods with workers.

He told Fairfax Media he wasn't involved in finding accommodation.

"That is not part of my job to check where they live, I am only seeking to find good worker," he said.

He said he was aware of some unscrupulous "house masters", but believed Frank to be one of better ones.

"I see a lot of houses with rubbish, I don't want to go inside - it is dangerous ... like a ghost house, if I know my employee lives in that house I feel sad," he said.

"I know Frank is not perfect, but he is better than others."

Fairfax Media is aware of at least one other operator in Tamworth.

Following questions from Fairfax Media, Ananda's chief executive Ken Qin promised to "investigate this case and interview Ananda employees, make sure that they don't live in overcrowded accommodation".

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union is pushing for new laws which would force Thomas Foods and other businesses to hire locally.

"Surely large employers, in particular Thomas Foods International should be looking at pathways for local kids to get into the meat industry," said union secretary Grant Courtney.

"But they just have a focus on continuous churn of temporary international labour."

Under the 2015 enterprise agreement signed with Thomas Foods and Ananda, workers at Tamworth receive $17.58 an hour for an entry level position.

Tamworth Regional Council said it had closed down one boarding house in the past year, which had 19 tenants under one roof. It has received reports of a further eight but said it is hamstrung by legislation.

"Council staff can knock on the door of any premises but can only enter the premises if they are invited inside," a spokeswoman said.

When asked about Thomas Foods reliance on foreign workers, the council said it was "well known" the company had struggled to find workers locally.

Thomas Foods said it employs a diverse workforce of both local and overseas workers.

It said it takes allegations against a labour-hire agency "very seriously".

"If allegations around unlawful residential arrangements are proven to be true, and therefore in breach of TFI's strict policy requirements, TFI will immediately terminate its arrangement with the labour hire agency," it said.

After questions from Fairfax Media, Woolworths and Aldi contacted Thomas Foods which is now investigating the claims.

"We have engaged directly with Thomas Foods over these allegations and are satisfied they are taking the necessary steps to address them directly," a Woolworths spokesman said.

Aldi said it will remain engaged with Thomas Foods as they conduct their investigations.

Coles said it would "investigate the claims you have raised".