Australian auto workers took carmaker Toyota to court Tuesday claiming they were unlawfully sacked for holding health and safety officer posts or being union stewards.
The 12 workers were among 350 staff laid off by the Japanese auto giant in January blaming "unprecedented" pressure on its Australian operations due to the strong local currency, which has triggered job losses across the sector.
But law firm Maurice Blackburn said there was a "disproportionate number of health and safety representatives and shop stewards" made redundant, adding it had filed a suit in Federal Court alleging "targeted and unlawful discrimination" in the job cuts.
"There is a stench in the way Toyota has gone about these sackings and there is a stench in the way redundancy criteria was misused to target particular employees for dismissal," said lawyer Josh Bornstein.
Bornstein said the workers would be seeking immediate reinstatement and compensation in an urgent hearing he hoped to bring later this week.
David Smith from the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union said there were now "serious concerns about future safety standards at the plant" in southern Melbourne's Altona.
"There is a very real danger that people won't put their hand up for workplace health and safety roles for fear of persecution if they do their job well, and that could lead to tragedy," Smith said.
It comes as Ford warned it may have to suspend 1,800 employees at its main Geelong and Broadmeadows plants in Victoria due to a parts shortage stemming from a rental dispute involving major supplier CMI Industrial, which is said to be struggling financially.
CMI produces parts including seatbelt restraints, air bags, suspension components and brake pad backing plates, and Ford said it would have to halt production on Thursday because it would run out of supplies.
"In a nutshell for us, worst-case scenario, we would have to temporarily stand our plants down as of close of business Thursday," Ford spokeswoman Sinead Phipps told ABC Radio.
CMI's landlord changed the locks at the firm's Melbourne factory last week amid a dispute over unpaid rent.
Australia's auto industry is labouring due to the local exchange rate's protracted run against the greenback, accompanied by rising production costs and faltering domestic sales.
Canberra gave General Motors subsidiary Holden a Aus$275 million (US$283 million) lifeline to keep its plants open last month amid fears it would pull out of Australia, and pledged Aus$34 million to prop up production at Ford.
Holden in February announced that it would sack 100 workers, just one week after Toyota fired 350 staff -- about 7.5 percent of its workforce -- citing "severe operating conditions resulting in unsustainable financial returns."
Toyota said demand had failed to recover from the global downturn, with production slipping 36 percent since 2007, when 149,000 cars were made, while just 95,000 are forecast for 2012.