The mooted closure of the Coles Distribution Centre in five years has brought together local representative bodies and a politician to thrash out solutions.
The gathering comes ahead of a meeting between the council, Hume MP Angus Taylor and Member for Goulburn Pru Goward with the Coles executive in Goulburn on November 19.
Former Community Plus chairman and Labor candidate for Goulburn Dr Ursula Stephens organised an informal gathering at Community Plus on Friday. It involved the Goulburn Chamber of Commerce, Regional Development Australia Southern Inland, Goulburn District Unions and State Opposition spokesman for regional development and Wyong MP David Harris. The forum was also designed to bring together Coles DC workers however only the wife of one turned up.
Dr Stephens said its need emerged from last week’s Politics in the Pub.
“There was a lot of concern expressed that there was no opportunity for workers to talk among themselves and gather information to drive a formal process,” she said.
Dr Stephens said the meeting was not political but designed to start the conversation about workers’ and Goulburn’s future after the closure.
Coles announced early last month that the Ducks Lane DC would close in about five years. It will leave 250 to 300 people out of work. The retail giant is closing five DCs in NSW and Queensland, opting instead for two automated centres, one in each state.
Dr Stephens, Ms Goward and Mr Taylor have all called for a coordinated strategy for Goulburn, post closure.
On Friday, Mr Harris informed the meeting of the State’s Central West Job Action Plan implemented for 210 Electrolux employees before the Orange factory closed in 2013.
“There are models we can look at in terms of a transition program,” Mr Harris said.
“I was involved in this sort of thing at Lithgow when the mines were nearing the ended of their life. It needs sensible planning and given there is a timeline with Coles’ closure, if everyone gets on board quickly, they can source other investment. There will be a big empty warehouse up there,” he said.
Mr Harris said Goulburn’s location was ideal. But he believed the city wasn’t factored well enough into State plans and needed to take better advantage of its location near Canberra Airport.
It was up to the government to unlock these and other attractors to entice greater business investment before Coles’ closure, he argued.
Mr Harris said a taskforce comprising government, business groups, work and education providers and community organisations, was essential.
So too was a skills audit that identified strengths and training programs that led to work.
Regional Development Australia Southern Inland has already undertaken a skills audit for Goulburn. Newly appointed business attraction and development manager Daryl Smith said RDA’s role was to help lure new business and act as a conduit between employees and job service and education providers.
“We want to pull all the information together, see how it potentially impacts and look for solutions. Beyond that, if there’s an empty site, we’ll look at that and see if there’s a viable industry that could go in there,” he said.
RDASI could also help source state and federal funding.
Dr Stephens said the National Union of Workers representative at Politics in Pub did not believe Goulburn could secure one of the automated DCs, as the council was advocating.
This was primarily due to distribution networks, for which he argued the Central Coast was better placed.
The union met Coles management in Melbourne on Friday to glean more information on timelines for redundancies and closure.
Goulburn and District Chamber of Commerce president Mark Bradbury said business of any size needed certainty.
“Employees are directly affected in that they’re working under a degree of uncertainty but there is also talk among the business community on what it means for them. The sooner we have a definitive answer from Coles, the better,” he said.
Mr Bradbury was interested in several schemes Mr Harris discussed, including a private legacy fund started by AGL for employees at Gloucester when it pulled out of coal seam gas mining in the area, due to residents’ protests.
Chamber members discussed the Coles’ DC closure at their October meeting and agreed to contact the retailer with a view to having a representative address a future gathering.
Barbara Nell, the wife of one employee, said when workers were initially advised of the closure they were very unsettled but now it was “business as usual.”
However people were confronting difficult choices. Some in the fifties were considering whether to hang on for redundancy or take up other work opportunities while they were available.
“No one wants to miss out on redundancy because it could pay out the mortgage,” Mrs Nell said.
“Different life stages are creating different pressures.”
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