Herb farm fiasco
WORKERS have been left in limbo after being suddenly ordered out of their workplace and sacked at Freshzest herb farm in Pound Creek on Friday, April 20.
The 30 workers at the facility, owned by Robert Hayes, were advised on Friday, April 13 that Freshzest Pty Ltd and Spicezest Pty Ltd had administrators Hall Chadwick appointed to look after the affairs of the company.
Twenty-three of the 30 employees were sacked from their jobs on April 20 without notice, leaving their lives in tatters. Many have mortgages and children to feed and bills mounting as they contemplate their future.
It is widely believed administrators will close the Pound Creek facility at the end of this week. Packers from local business Herbert Herbs are packing at Freshzest this week but have been told that it is only to fill orders until this weekend.
The employees at the Pound Creek facility were under the impression, as stated in the letter from Hall Chadwick, that it was the intention of the administrators to continue trading.
Workers started arriving for work as normal on Friday, April 20 but at lunchtime they were called to a meeting and 23 of them were told by the office manager to grab all their “stuff” and leave.
Workers include managers, horticulturists, supervisors, administrators, growers, harvesters, packers and sub-contractors.
Employees, many of whom have spoken anonymously to The Star, are appalled at the way they have been treated and are still in the dark as to how and when they will receive their entitlements.
Last Friday, The Star met with five workers with a combined total of 62 years service; two of them had been at the company for more than 20 years.
“We knew something was going on when they requested our master keys on April 16. The next day we were locked out of our computers and couldn’t clock on until someone entered the new passwords,” one of the ladies told The Star.
The Star contacted Gaurav Mishra from the Melbourne office of Hall Chadwick. He confirmed the staff losses, but said the company would continue trading at both its Pound Creek location and its other location at Caniaba Farm, New South Wales.
“The company has been downsized and will be soon advertised for sale as a going concern,” Mr Mishra said.
Asked about worker entitlements, Mr Mishra said separation certificates were sent in the mail and should be received by workers soon and all entitlements will be paid in due course.
A lady confirmed with The Star on Monday she had received her certificate in the mail but still doesn’t know whether she was sacked or made redundant.
“If we were sacked we are entitled to two weeks’ pay as part of our early severance. This has been handled poorly. Many of us live week by week. We need our payouts very soon to put food on the table. We also need to move on and find new jobs, contact Centrelink and get on with things,” she said.
A number of other local businesses have been caught up in the closure of the Pound Creek facility, including Ivan Smith who runs Southern Hydroponics, and John Paul and Bev Schawalder who own Herbert Herbs of Koonwarra.
Mr Paul believes strongly Pound Creek will be closed by the administrators at the end of this week.
“There are only a couple of administration staff there. We have five of our packers employed at Freshzest to keep orders going but have been told our workers are only required till the end of this week,” Mr Paul said.
“When I heard of the troubles I initially went into panic mode, but I have since been paid most of what I’m owed except for a few thousand dollars.
“It’s a crying shame what’s happened, there’s no doubt about it; it’s not good for the area.
“I’ll be okay as I’ve got other avenues. It will hurt for the short term and slow me down a bit, but I’ll be right.”
Herbert Herbs mainly supplies coriander to the market, but also dill and continental parsley amongst other herbs.
Mr Smith said he was unsure of the future of his business and was owed thousands of dollars.
His business supplied mainly watercress but also basil, chives and coriander which was packaged by Freshzest for distribution. Woolworths is listed as one of the major clients.
“I think the whole process has been handled appallingly. There was a creditors meeting on Thursday, April 26 in Melbourne. I received a letter and papers to attend the meeting in the post the day after the meeting was held. Many of the employees had little or no knowledge it was even held,” Mr Smith said.
“I’ll just have to wait and see what happened but I really feel for the workers, some of whom have worked there for more than 25 years. It’s a real kick in the guts.”
Mr Mishra told The Star employees received electronic versions of a copy of the creditor’s meeting information however this was denied by workers.
Freshzest’s mission statement on its internet page states, “365 days a year, the Freshzest team grows, tends, harvests, processes and despatches to diners across the country.”
The history of the company, as stated on its internet site, says “The seed for the business started back in the late 1970s as one man’s ‘passionate experimental hobby’. From there, with a commitment to setting the benchmarks on quality and R&D, Robert Hayes transformed his passion into Australia’s most expansive grower and producer of fresh culinary herbs. Today, more than 15 herb varieties are currently branded under the Freshzest label.
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