Horrible meat…

The Age is running an article, and series of pictures, Inside Baiada, dire picture of health, safety. The pictures are of course, pretty disgusting, which you’d expect I’d say, being vegetarian.

What strikes me is people’s shock, almost as if Baiada were some exceptional case, as if poultry workers normally work in futuristic factories, all sleek, swish and white, spotless in 1080p HD. Let me tell you, while I don’t like what I’m seeing, I’m not shocked.

Ben Schneiders reports Baiada as claiming boxes labelled ‘Coles’ aren’t destined for Coles, but are instead ingredients sourced for use in production. Worrying apparently, because these boxes are in proximity to waste.

Nothing in the article however, shows that the pictured boxes were to be used in production, rather just that they were sourced for that purpose. Consider the imagery of boxes next to piled up (and bruised) chicken carcasses; I’ve seen this kind of thing, where boxes of ingredients approach their expiry date and are sorted with waste to be removed from the factory. I’ve done this work before, taking damaged chooks and boxes of frozen, aging stuffing out back to be disposed of.

News of maggots and cockroaches at the plant aren’t particularly abnormal either. Surely, you’d worry about this being in proximity to the produce end of the line, but poultry processing has an arse end as well, and flies, and cockroaches (and European wasps for that matter) will be attracted. The location of this kind of thing matters, and the photos don’t provide such context – the cockroaches for example, could be outside away from the produce, dead near a trap or bait.

Timing matters as well, and with the level of activity shown in the photos involving produce, it looks like the end of the day when processing is wound down, things are messy, and the cleaners are on their way in. Ugly, yes. Out of order, I can’t tell.

There’s nothing in The Age’s selection of photographs that suggests that food safety regulations have actually been breached (although this may still be the case). Indeed, some of the ugly photographs, like the one with the unattended pot of what looks like marinade, show no signs of anything suspicious. It may all appear shocking (and it should), if you’ve never been inside a poultry factory, but that doesn’t make the produce illegally unsanitary.

No, I’m not alleging deception by the photographers, but rather an unintentionally skewed, middle-class interpretation by the reporter (and likely by most readers). The original photographers may very well have had different inferences in mind; being poultry workers, their perspectives on the matter aren’t likely to be exactly the same as that of white-collar journalists.

No, this is not an apologia for the industry (being normal doesn’t make something right). If I could wave a magic wand and turn Baiada’s plants into vegetarian operations in an instant, I’d do it. What I’m saying is that people need to get their heads around the idea that the poultry industry, and indeed any meat processing industry, is at best, so very, very ugly behind the scenes.

The photos attest to a horrid work environment, but they don’t show how bad things could be, or how bad they often are. The reader is possibly led to underestimate through the inference that any of this is exceptional.

During my stint at Joe’s back in the 1990s, there were instances of my cleaning things up considerably uglier than anything in The Age’s photographic selection (or the embedded video), and this was in compliance with regulation. Heck, I’ve had AQIS inspectors watch me while I’ve been at it – with a tick of approval!

This is the industrial reality of what meat eaters put into their stomachs. This is the industrial reality of what poultry workers put up with.

As for worker safety, the stacking of boxes, the obstruction of exits and the like – none of this surprises me. Nor does the decapitation currently under investigation. While there weren’t any violent deaths at Joe’s while I was there, there was a near-miss just after I left – a fellow falling into a rotary chilling drum that had the safety cover removed, to be crushed between the inner and outer drums, breaking ribs and his collar-bone.

If I read as a little jaded, or a little numb, consider this the result of having been a poultry worker.

None of this is to pre-judge occupational health and safety investigations. Without qualification, I want Baiada workers to have justice and security. None of this is to claim that Baiada hasn’t done anything wrong, legally, with regards to worker safety. I simply make no claims about likely legal outcomes.

None of what I’m writing is to belittle the experience of Baiada employees. Again, what I’m saying is, is that if you’re shocked into thinking this is particularly abnormal based on what you’ve seen so far, then you’re underestimating how harsh the industry actually is, and just how rough Baiada workers must have it, even in a best-case scenario.

Really, you, and Schneiders, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

There is a lot that can still be done justice-wise, even without monolithic reform, and this involves people waking up about just how ugly the industry is, even when ‘ideal’ and legal.

~ Bruce

(I do think it’s pragmatic, and realistic, to consider what a future industry would look like for workers if they were producing vegetarian alternatives; chickens and cows have arseholes, textured vegetable proteins don’t. Even if you aren’t a vegetarian, which workplace would you rather work in? Which kind of workplace would you be more comfortable having people work in to produce your meals?)

HT: Rod and Neil.

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