Push to revive domestic manufacturing amid pandemic, China trade war fallout

Both the pandemic and the trade dispute with China are driving opportunities to resurrect domestic manufacturing in regional Australia, according to a union representing thousands of workers.

The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) has called for a renewed focus on manufacturing to boost regional employment.

National manufacturing division vice-president Brad Coates said many regions had once boasted small cheese factories, woollen mills and clothing factories such as those belonging to the iconic Fletcher Jones brand.

“The more we can manufacture and value-add locally, the better off our economy and communities are,” Mr Coates said.

“I think there was a real danger [in] the way we were heading down before, into a society of consumers and our reliance on countries like China.”

While the new manufacturing “catchcry” was computerised robotics and less manual handling, Mr Coates said, such new-age jobs were often higher paid and better positions.

CFMMEU’s Brad Coates says regional manufacturing, including in plantation forests, is needed. (

ABC South East SA: Todd Lewis

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Although China remained an important trading partner, Mr Coates called on the Commonwealth to rethink free trade agreements.

“We need to protect our industries, to make sure that they’re sustainable going into the future,” Mr Coates said. “Most of the industries that are affected at the moment are in regional areas.”

The union official said seafood, wine, agricultural and timber products were being hit hard by lingering trade disputes with China.

“We need to have policy settings in place to make sure our industries do continue to grow.

“One good thing about the pandemic is [it has put the] focus back on people buying local and supporting local industries and local employment.”

Ice cream sticks, trousers

Mr Coates — secretary of the Greater Green Triangle that straddles the Victorian and South Australian border — said the region was formerly home to a large number of domestic processing facilities.

He said the small timber town of Nangwarry once had an ice-cream wooden-paddle factory.

“There were lots of cottage industries around in the dairy industry. There were little cheese factories dotted throughout the region.”

Dozens of employees working on the Fletcher Jones factory floor in Warrnambool. (

Supplied: Glenn Morgan

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Former long-serving Fletcher Jones employee John Millhouse said it would be wonderful to see manufacturing return to regional communities.

Mr Millhouse, who was a production manager at the company’s former Mount Gambier factory, said there were hundreds of people employed across factories at Mount Gambier, Warrnambool and Brunswick in Melbourne.

“Back then, we could make a pair of trousers in 50 minutes and every year the styles would change. The machinery was also sophisticated.”

He said Fletcher Jones provided lifelong careers for people who did not have tertiary qualifications.

“It set me up for a lifetime in people management in manufacturing and provided opportunities for many families,” Mr Millhouse said.