Employees from eight of sugar giant Wilmar International‘s plants in Australia have rejected its new wage offer today (11 June).

Some 84.7% of 1,200 workers voted against the pay proposal from the Singapore-owned company, the Australia Workers’ Union (AWU) told Just Food.

Union members are expected to meet again this week to plan next steps.

Since March 2023, Wilmar has been in talks with the AWU, the Australian Metal Workers’ Union and the Electrical Trades Union to establish a new enterprise agreement.

The employees concerned include tradespeople, operators, technicians and unskilled workers. They are covered by an agreement negotiated every three years.

Workers and their union representatives initially demanded a 28% increase in pay over three years.

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Wilmar told Just Food it made “a number of offers well below this figure” but stressed these were “in line with all appropriate economic indicators on inflation, wage movements and industry averages”.

According to the group, eight meetings took place between March and 8 May 2024 to negotiate a deal. Additional discussions also took place on 13 and 22 May, as well as on 15 May, when parties met with the deputy president of the independent fair work commission to discuss progress.

In the latest talks last week, the three unions offered to reduce their offer to a 18% wage increase across three years, a proposal not met by Wilmar.

Instead, the company said it offered a 14.25% pay rise over three and a half years, as well as a sign-on bonus of A$1,500 ($988) plus “a A$20 a week allowance for electricians utilising an electrical licence”.

It also proposed to pay workers the 5% “immediately” with an additional 3.75% being granted from 1 December.

The move follows a period of rolling stoppages that took place across Wilmar’s eight sugar mills in north Queensland between 9 May and 5 June in a dispute over pay.

According to Wilmar’s Australian arm, around 840 of the 1,200 enterprise agreement-covered workers took part in industrial action.

A company spokesperson told Just Food the stoppages and “partial work bans” took place at different points across all eight sites, amounting to “four days in lost work”.

Disruption brought about “delays of about four to six days in [the] start of production”, which “varied between sites”, they said.

Industrial action came to a halt last week when Wilmar “advised all wages employees that industrial action was clearly and directly causing delay to the start of production”, giving it “the right to lock out any employees participating in further such action from 5 June”.

No employees were locked out following the warning, the company said, allowing work to resume at all eight plants from yesterday.

Commenting on the latest vote, AWU northern district secretary Jim Wilson said: “Wilmar arrived an hour late to our latest bargaining meeting and did not budge on their offer.

“The unions have come to the table to reduce our ask by 7%. We are ready to continue bargaining in good faith.”

He added: “Workers are simply asking for a fair pay rise to keep up with cost-of-living pressures. Wilmar’s wages are falling behind compared to the neighbouring mills, our claims wouldn’t even take us to the highest rates of pay for the industry locally.

“Workers are not asking for the world – just to have enough money to support their families. It’s time for local economies to see some of the profits of the billion-dollar corporation.”

Wilmar Sugar, the Australian branch of Singapore-based sugar processor Wilmar International, is the largest sugar producer for Australia and New Zealand.

Its consumer products include the Chelsea Sugar branded white sugar cubes, maple syrup and baking ingredients. The company also manufactures the CSR Sugar portfolio, which includes white, brown and caster sugars, golden syrup and treacle, as well as specialty sugars such as coconut and muscovado.