Thomas Foods in Tamworth, NSW. 22nd November 2017 Photo: Janie Barrett The foyer of 10 Ebony Close, Hillvue, one of many properties rented by Frank Lin and turned into illegal boarding houses for Taiwanese nationals who are working at the nearby Thomas Foods meat processing plant. 22nd November 2017 Photo: Janie Barrett
11a Banks St, Westdale near Tamworth, one of many properties rented by Frank Lin and turned into illegal boarding houses for Taiwanese nationals who are working at the nearby Thomas Foods meat processing plant. 21st November 2017 Photo: Janie Barrett
Dozens of migrant workers face losing their homes as authorities move to shut down suspected illegal boarding houses operating in Tamworth.
Tamworth Regional Council said it had begun cleaning out the boarding houses, sending “notices of intention” to the owners of 12 premises “where investigations have led us to conclude they are illegally being operated”.
The notices were sent less than 24 hours after a Fairfax Media investigation revealed a network of potentially illegal boarding houses, the residents of which worked at the local meat processing plant run by Thomas Foods International. Thomas Foods does not operate the boarding houses.
Thomas Foods is Tamworth’s largest employer, supplying lamb and mutton to household names including Woolworths, Aldi, Coles and McDonald’s.
Until Tuesday, the council had acted to close down one illegal boarding house in the past year, but were aware of a further eight, reported in August.
The council’s general manager Paul Bennett said it could be difficult for officers to gather evidence.
“One of problems we have been facing is that, when council officers visit the properties, no one answers the door,” he said.
Owners of the homes will now have 30 days to prove their property is not being used illegally, or apply for the house to be approved as a boarding house.
Thomas Foods profits from using migrant workers. Often starting at entry-level pay rates, many workers must leave after six months and never advance to higher levels of pay. Pay rates start at $17.58 an hour under an agreement signed in September, 2015. A spokesman from the company said pay packets had increased since 2015 and the current rate was “much higher”.
Thomas Foods had previously said in response to questions many of its employees progressed to higher remuneration levels in a short period of time.
The surrounding New England region suffers from high youth unemployment, which is at 19.6 per cent, well above the national average of 12.4 per cent.
Tamworth mayor Col Murray said he would like to see local businesses, including Thomas Foods, “consider local residents when they are looking to employ new staff”.
“However, this is not always practical and council knows first hand it is not always possible to find someone who already lives locally and is the right fit for a specific role with the necessary skill set,” he said.
Many of the workers travel to Tamworth from Korea and Taiwan but, once they arrive, they say they feel trapped.
“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.
Fairfax Media has spoken to tenants of boarding houses controlled by local “house master” En-Ting Ling, known locally as Frank. He had previously denied his houses were overcrowded but admitted to possibly “six or eight” being housed in a single dwelling. The legal limit is five.
The council has been supportive of Thomas Foods. Earlier this month it waived four months’ worth of waste water charges and non-compliance fees. At the time Cr Murray said “Thomas Foods had been a really good corporate citizen” and the “largest private employer” in town.
Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union said a “black market labour network” was operating in Tamworth and described it as a national disgrace.
“Thomas Foods is turning a blind eye to local youth who desperately want a job, replacing them with an endless churn of backpacker workers who are exploited,” secretary Grant Courtney said.
Thomas Foods said on Monday the safety and wellbeing of all its staff was its “utmost priority” and that, if allegations about unlawful residential arrangements were proven to be true, it would “immediately terminate its arrangement with the labour hire agency”.
“TFI does not, and will not, condone any unlawful practices by a labour hire agency and will not engage an agency found to be operating illegally in any way,” the company said in a statement.