MG Rochester plant closes doors

05 Feb, 2018 08:57 AM
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Four of the men who finished on Wednesday - Bernard Lomas, David Muscat, Adrian Messfeldt and Shane Bywaters. Picture: DARREN HOWE
The last shift ended Wednesday lunchtime.
Four of the men who finished on Wednesday - Bernard Lomas, David Muscat, Adrian Messfeldt and Shane Bywaters. Picture: DARREN HOWE

You see it long before arriving in Rochester.

One moment you're glancing at the odometer, checking you haven't slipped over 100 kilometres - easy to do on the straight stretch of the Northern Highway that guides you into town.

Then you look up and the Murray Goulburn factory has materialised, like a stack of moving boxes piled high on the horizon, ready for collection.

It stands, imposingly, in the place you might expect a church or war monument to be: at the end of the main road, welcoming all those travelling north to the town 3000 people call home.

Murray Goulburn opened its Mackay Street factory in 1978, 15 years after arriving in Rochester. It laid down foundations across an entire block of the central business district.

Proprietors moved aside their shopfronts to make way for the behemoth, understanding the factory was a cash cow for the town and its residents.

Since then, passers-by could watch on as fluorescent-clad workers toiled inside the fence line to a soundtrack of whirring machinery, punctuated by the comings and goings of delivery trucks.

But the constant hum has drawn silent. More than eight months after Murray Goulburn announced its plans to shut the plant, drivers have made their last stop in Rochy.

The last shift ended Wednesday lunchtime, with the final group of 20 employees making the short and well-worn pilgrimage from the factory to the Shamrock hotel, just 200 metres away.

They were more cheery than solemn as beer and bourbon flowed beside stories about their time together inside the factory walls.

Someone recalls watching from atop the building as the Olympic torch or Commonwealth Games baton was carried through town – they can’t remember which one.

One even claims his three children were all conceived on lunchtime jaunts back home.

For so long, Murray Goulburn was synonymous with family. Generations of the same clan would earn a living inside the factory gates.

Adrian Messfeldt’s mother and father both worked there. His son already had sights set on a career like those of his dad and grandparents.

Mr Messfeldt did his first shift in the Mackay Street site at 18. He turned 31 on Wednesday, his last day of work at the now decommissioned plant.

“Redundant on your birthday,” he said, letting go a burst of laughter that tells more about the cruel absurdity of the situation than words ever could.

Still, he’s almost happy the day has arrived. Finally there is closure to an experience riddled with uncertainty and goodbyes.

“We've been wanting out,” Mr Messfeldt said.

“We've watched two redundancies happen over our time so you get to that last one and think, 'It's finally over', you don't have to worry anymore, you can look for something else.”

And although he makes a point of thanking the company for the education it provided him, there’s still very palpable anger from these spurned workers towards the upper echelons of Murray Goulburn management.

In fact, it takes just only a few questions before the men’s jovial, sentimental banter gives way to a well of discontent about the way things ended.

They don’t mention those responsible by name, but by location and dress code: the workers speak about “guys down there in Melbourne with multi-million dollar wages” who “line their suit pockets with bonuses”.

Their anger is coloured with confusion as well. How could a business they believed so profitable, so foolhardy, deteriorate so quickly? Even during the millenium drought of the 2000s, which scorched paddocks yellow, milk continued to churn out of the Rochester plant.

Mr Messfeldt asked why now, when pastures were again becoming verdent with life, would production dry up?

It was for his older colleagues he expressed the most concern.

“If anything, they were institutionalised, because they'd been here for 30 years,” he said.

“How do you get out of that, just like that?”

Among those still looking for a job is Ray McCaig, a Rochester resident for 42 years and Murray Goulburn employee for the last 15.

The kind of man his mates describe as “a real character”, Mr McCaig is waving a beer out the window of the Shamrock when asked for an interview, busy jesting with the other men.

Despite protesting that he’s “done about 10 today”, he kindly relents for another round of questions.

His larrikin countenance softens into a more serious expression. His voice lowers, grows thoughtful.

The 63-year-old said he has begun the search for work, sending his resume to a couple of prospective employers. But so far, no news. He feared his age could be difficult for employers to look past.

“They want to employ someone for 10 or 15 years, not for three or four,” he said.

He briefly concedes the factory’s closure has knocked him but, like Mr Messfeldt, Mr McCaig says he has things to be grateful for.

It could have been worse, he said. He could have been one of the first to be shown the door.

“It probably hit them hardest – they were gone within weeks,” he said.

Despite being among the first let go after last year’s announcement – a move that left her seven weeks short of a 30-year anniversary at the plant – and mourning the sudden passing of her father in the months that followed, cheese room worker Lorraine Lawrence considers herself “one of the lucky ones”.

She explains about managing to navigate a new, strange landscape of resume-writing and key selection criteria to secure casual work.

“You never had to do that before,” she said.

But watching her 20-year-old daughter endure the disappointment of failed job applications made her wonder what rejection would do to her former, more mature colleagues that luck did not favour, people whose self esteem would take a beating.

She was heartened that all those who lost jobs in the 2012 round of redundancies moved on to new work and was hopeful the same would prove true for the men who this week left their posts for the final time.

“I just keep telling people there's work out there, you've just got to keep your head up high,” she said.

“I try to keep in touch with everyone, if I can, even if it’s just seeing a job application and forwarding it onto them.”

What would help, Ms Lawrence said, was if new owner Saputo sold the factory so it could be put back into production.

The company made a takeover bid for Murray Goulburn last November but swiftly ruled out re-opening the Rochester factory.

Over the next fortnight, a handful of workers will disconnect and relocate equipment the company can use at its remaining sites. But the gutted, white shell would remain, its footprint still dominating the town map.

If it sat dormant too long, like the disused Murray Goulburn plant in Leitchville, the white elephant would cast a shadow over locked out workers, Ms Lawrence said.

“I could see it eating away at them over time.”

Indeed, as night comes and the clinking of glasses at the Shamrock starts to slow, the factory remains visible, glowing yellow-warm under floodlights.

On nighttime trips out of Rochester, when car high beams watch the road ahead for kangaroos, the bright pyramid of boxes is a fixture in the rear-view mirror.

But all it takes is a quick look down at the odometer before, suddenly, the lights of the factory have disappeared from view.

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