Baiada…

I may be a vegetarian these days, but that not withstanding, I’d rather not see Baiada get their way in the current industrial dispute with poultry workers at Laverton. Maybe one day, Baiada will be growing drumsticks from petri dishes, or making faux-chicken nuggets like Fry’s, but until then, the difference doesn’t negate the industrial relations concerns. And I’m concerned…

Whatever the job, workers deserve fair pay and conditions.

I’ve mentioned before that back in the 1990s, amongst other things, I worked in a non-union chicken factory, staffed almost entirely by casual workers.  What I wouldn’t have given for a campaign like the one Laverton’s workers are waging.

I could be wrong about the working conditions at Baiada, and it’s not my intent to minimise the specifics of the exertion I know they must strive through, but I suspect Joe’s Poultry may just have been a little worse*. That being said, with the reality of the cited threats to the Laverton workers, if things aren’t as bad, then it seems likely the situation could easily become so, if not worse. The implications of my own experiences ringing true are at least grounds for solidarity, and even in a best-case scenario for Baiada workers, still cautionary.

Mark Phillips cites ACTU President Ged Kearney stating the concerns plainly; casual labour, exploitative labour hire and health and safety. Poultry processing, as Kearney points out, is dangerous and unpleasant work. I’m thinking that as a result of necessity, Kearney’s terms are still a little abstract and boilerplate for many readers, so I’ll try to flesh out what these terms mean to me, as a former poultry worker, in the hope that it’s somehow helpful.

It seems a normal, and uncritically accepted work ethic, that casual labour isn’t a problem if only you’re a good worker (perhaps a product of fundamental attribution error related to that other myth, that if 100,000 unemployed people wanted work badly enough, they could all magically be employed in the 20,000 jobs available). This doesn’t ring true to me at all.

Your work life may not be as vulnerable, or if it is, it may be so fortunate as to avoid incident. Or maybe, like most humans, incidents do effect you, you can see them happening, and yet you overlook that shit happens to other people as well. This is understandably human, but it still presents an attitudinal problem needing to be dealt with.

I’ve known quite a number of good, hard, very hard workers on casual contracts, and I’ve seen them worn down thanks just to the combination of shit happening, and casual contracts leaving them vulnerable. (That this happens is hardly unique to my experience). For example…

‘Hey, don’t worry. If you don’t report this to Workcover, we’ll look after you!’

I’ve seen this consolation given to more than one hard worker on a casual contract. And if you’re feeling a little gullible, perhaps you’ll believe this is all legit, and that such good will from employers is the logical outcome of a strong work ethic by casuals.

Without exception, when I’ve seen this consolation offered to casual workers in poultry processing, the result has been that in coming back to work, and not getting back up to speed quickly enough, they’re dumped. Not fired, I might add, just told not to come in anymore – employed, but with zero hours a week (causing wonderful issues with Centrelink who want to see separation papers).

Casual contracts make this, and exploitations like it, incredibly easy.

The salt in the wound is that often, the injury slowing them down in the first place could have been avoided by occupational health and safety being properly observed by the employer – instead of for example, there being situations like safety guards being removed to speed up work, with the acceptance of supervisors themselves under pressure to perform.

When I was first interviewed for my job at Joe’s, I was told they chose to go with casual contracts despite the slightly higher hourly rate, because it worked out to be ‘convenient’ for them. Yeah, no shit. Cutting corners (and fingers) more than paid for the difference, I’m sure.

And of course, being in a non-union workplace makes this exploitation even easier.

As for labour hire, good grief. I was an underpaid lumpenprole back in the day, but wasn’t I surprised when I found out that the labour hire workers were getting paid less than me. At least, that’s after the labour hire joint got their cut. Only if a labour hire employee stayed around long enough, would they get their full pay.

Rhetorical question: Do you think labour hire employees lasted long enough to get their proper pay?

The upshot of this, for Joe’s at least, was that they got to outsource the expense of their personnel operations. As long as the labour hire company provided enough workers to replace the (incredibly high) turnover, who needed to care about a little exploitation, right? What a ‘convenient’ arrangement.

Then we come to health and safety (again)…

It’s bad enough that the job is as dangerous as it is without bad policy. Even in a far more ideal industrial relations situation, digits will still be severed, particulate matter from feathers will still be inhaled, workers at the start of the hanging line will still get covered in shit, cleaners will still be exposed to infectious materials and dangerous chemicals, and whatever the causes turn out to be, poultry workers are, and will continue to be, at greater risk of various cancers.

Oh, and don’t forget the stress of the job, coupled with the stress of being seen as a lowly poultry worker. (If you think the poultry work ethic sells well across the board, try ‘process worker’ on with white-collar employers looking for low-level office staff**).

Again, I’m not sure exactly how poorly Baiada employees have it, but they surely don’t deserve things any harder than they’re likely to be experiencing now, even in a best-case estimation. And personally, I really do not want them to endure as much hardship as workers at Joe’s Poultry had to put up with.

I think people need to sympathise more with poultry workers and workers like them, if not for sympathy’s sake in its own right, then because these conflicts are a picture of what more Australian’s lives may be more likely to become.

You may look down on poultry workers now, or dismiss their concerns as outside your interest, but what about when you become one?

With a shrinking middle class, and workplace ‘reform’ across the board, many Australians are the next potential chook on the line. A little forward thinking, if only out of enlightened self-interest, wouldn’t hurt.

If you want to voice a little solidarity with the workers at Baiada, you can sign a petition in support here.  (And please ‘re-tweet’, or ‘like’, on the appropriate social networks).

If you find yourself in much the same situation as Baiada’s employees, you can contact the National Union of Workers here, or The Missos here, who in turn, if they don’t cover your workplace, can hook you up with the right union.

~ Bruce

* Some or all of this may be mitigated against; my experience being prior to most of Peter Reith’s waves of industrial relations reforms back in the day, and obviously prior to more recent setbacks to worker’s rights.

** And no, being highly computer literate, and a fast typist able to slaughter data entry, word processing and database certificates in a swipe, will not help. Being a lumpenprole able to do these things will just get you stared at like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. Forget upward mobility you lowly human.

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