Staff at Port Kembla Hospital's food production unit will walk off the job this morning for a half-hour rally to protest the impending closure of the service.
The 30 staff who work at the unit - which supplies food to hospitals across the region - have been told that it will close as soon as June with food production to be transferred to a Sydney hospital.
Health Services Union (HSU) Illawarra organiser Graham Conroy said staff and supporters would stop work at 11am today for the rally.
"At the rally, we will be launching a campaign to lobby the O'Farrell government to stop the cuts at Port Kembla kitchen," he said.
"We have also started circulating a petition and hope to get 10,000 signatures as quickly as possible so the matter can be raised and debated in State Parliament."
Mr Conroy said he hoped the Illawarra community would get behind the campaign and sign the petition, to keep jobs and services in the region.
"We see this as another nail in the coffin for the Illawarra - another service gone, more jobs gone," he said.
"It's not just the staff and their families that this affects - it's the local suppliers, it's the hospital patients and it's the community itself."
HSU NSW secretary Gerard Hayes said the decision was a "kick in the guts" for the workers and the community.
"The O'Farrell government's cuts are filtering down to the local community, destroying livelihoods," he said.
"The great tragedy is that no-one can fault the job done by these hard-working HSU members. The only reason their jobs are on the line is because the O'Farrell government refuses to invest in an up-to-date kitchen.
"Clearly, the state government doesn't care about the Illawarra if it's prepared to allow hospital meals to be trucked in from Sydney."
A spokeswoman for HealthShare NSW, which is responsible for the provision of patient meals across the state's public health system, said the move was necessary due to the introduction of a new menu.
She said the menu had been developed with hospital clinicians to meet statewide nutrition standards and improve the quality, consistency and variety of hospital meals.
"As part of the statewide new menu program, South Eastern Sydney Local Health District and Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District will soon be moving to the new nutritionally compliant menu, planned for roll-out in the second half of 2014," she said.
"These [districts] currently receive some food products from the Port Kembla food production unit, however, in line with the new menu they will source food products from a mixture of local suppliers and specialised products from the food production unit based at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital."
She said redeployment into other HealthShare NSW roles or jobs within the local health districts was being "thoroughly investigated" for affected staff.
"HealthShare NSW is committed to ensuring all Port Kembla food production unit staff are kept advised of developments and will ensure any affected staff member receives full support throughout this process."
Kitchen staff worried for their future
Hospital food rarely gets a good rap but Karli Prigg is proud of the food she cooks up at Port Kembla Hospital’s food production unit.
Ms Prigg, a Health Services Union delegate, is one of 30 staff whose jobs are set to be cut when food production is transferred to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital later this year.
The Horsley resident said that just before Christmas staff were warned that the kitchen faced closure, and more recently had found out they could be out of a job within three months.
‘‘I’ve worked here for nine years and I’m very worried,’’ she said. ‘‘There’s not a lot of other jobs around and I don’t want to have to move out of the area for work.
‘‘I feel sad for all of my colleagues – many of whom have lived in the area their whole lives, who have kids and mortgages, and who now have to start looking around for other work.’’
Ms Prigg said staff had been told the introduction of a new menu had spurred the move, with the Port Kembla kitchen lacking some necessary equipment.
‘‘They don’t want to spend the money to update the kitchen when they have that equipment elsewhere, but I think it would be money well spent,’’ she said.
‘‘We provide a great service to the hospitals in the region – we use a cook/chill method, we don’t use preservatives and our food has a use-by date of five to seven days.
‘‘Under the new menu, as I understand, food will have a six-week shelf life so it will not be as fresh.’’
Ms Prigg said staff had been told they could apply for other jobs within the health service, but with no guarantees of work.
‘‘They’re not offering us any retraining,’’ she said.