ASBESTOS from damaged buildings at JBS Swift in central Queensland could see the meat processing plant closed indefinitely.
JBS took a hit from Tropical Cyclone Marcia last Thursday and the damage is clearly visible, with uprooted trees and the roof ripped from one of the buildings. It is understood the roof, made of asbestos, will need to be removed safely and then replaced.
JBS Australia’s chief executive John Berry said he was not willing to comment until the company received technical advice.
On Thursday evening, Teys general manager for corporate affairs, Tom Maguire, confirmed that the Rockhampton plant will be closed longer than anticipated - either late next week or early the following week.
Employees out in the cold
Meanwhile, the JBS plant will be closed for at least one month, according to an Australian Industry Employees Union member.
Rockhampton branch manager Paul Jensen said it could be longer and the problem was that it was an old plant.
About 700 employees have been affected and while some have been offered positions in other plants, not everyone could be offered employment, Mr Jensen said.
“People have just come back after Christmas with a four to five week break, then came back to work for two weeks and then there is no work.
“We are not in a really good position at the moment, so hopefully we can get some aid quickly for these people.”
The impact will also be felt by cattle producers.
“At JBS they kill 702 cattle every day, six days a week, so that will have a massive impact on the cattle industry," he said.
“Some of the producers have been doing it tough and I feel sorry for them, and just when it was starting to look up for them with a better price, this happens.”
QCL visited the processor yesterday, as Minister for Agriculture Bill Byrne visited several farms on the Capricorn Coast and Teys Australia.
Although Teys Australia said it hoped to re-open on Monday if the site was deemed safe enough for staff to return, Mr Jensen was not so optimistic.
“I hope they are right.”
Both plants had been trying to do everything possible to help their employees, but “it is one of those events”, he said.
Mr Jensen said he had not approached any agencies for help yet and was letting the situation settle first. Many employees at both plants are overseas workers and not entitled to any support.
Staff safety paramount
At JBS, a security officer kept watch so media would stay outside the gates while Mr Byrne spoke with management for more than half an hour.
Mr Byrne had a short meeting with the plant’s general manager, Wasantha Mudannayake, who said he could not comment on the situation.
Mr Maguire said there was minor damage on site, but staff safety was paramount and they were ensuring the complex was 100 per cent safe.
“We have to be mindful that people have homes and had loved ones put in harm’s way, so it is not just about the workplace.”
Power was out until Monday, so about 1400 carcases were condemned.
There was a distinct smell of cooked meat yesterday, and Mr Maguire said these carcases were being rendered down to meat and bone meal – a 20-hour continuous process and three-quarters completed on Thursday morning.
“For meat and bone meal, this is a high-quality product,” he quipped.
No cattle were injured during the cyclone.
Producers were initially asked if they would take their cattle back, at Teys Australia’s cost, and few did.
“The second thing we did was move half the cattle that we could, and then sent them to Biloela and Beenleigh.”
Because these cattle would have lost weight and the stress would cause them to be dark cutter, Teys did not grade them and paid a flat rate to the producers, Mr Maguire said.
“So we have been compensating producers for any loss.”
The cattle left at Lakes Creek have been spread out as much as possible and provided enough food and water.
The temperatures climbed to 38 degrees with high humidity following the cyclone and some cattle have suffered from heat stress.
“So we have to be very careful what to truck, and we have done the best we can for animal welfare,” Mr Maguire said.
Assessing the damage
The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has been contacting farms to carry out a rapid assessment of damage to determine right source of response.
As many people have not been accessible by telephone, staff have been making direct visits, and Mr Byrne’s visit was part of this.
“I met people who have lost most of their crops; hard-working people who have seen the work of decades smashed by the brutal energy of nature,” he said.
“What struck me was their calm resilience and steely determination to dust themselves off and rebuild their lives even though they are surrounded by landscapes that resemble a war zone and the immediate future will be very hard.”
Mr Byrne said the stories he heard were testament to a unique community spirit in adversity.
“Department of Agriculture and Fisheries staff on the ground have done a remarkable job so far in exceptionally difficult circumstances, where communication has been difficult.
“They are doing vital work to complete a rapid assessment of the damage so we can get the best and most appropriate assistance to people who have lost nearly everything.”
Mr Byrne said that as Minister, it was important for him to get first-hand information from people who were living through this extreme ordeal. He is currently visiting Biloela.