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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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.

The myth of the economic credibility of the Liberal Party

Preface: This piece was originally authored back in November of 2007 before the marked acceleration of the downturn on Wall Street and the associated Global Financial Crisis. On the matter of comments I made regarding the degree to which governments act as economic managers; I maintain my position that by and large, modern Western governments do not act in the same interventionist manner as they did prior to the Keating Government, and much less compared to pre-Hawke governments, both Labor and Liberal. I would add however, that the Keynsian manner in which the Rudd Labor Government, in response to the Global Financial Crisis, engaged in a “stimulation” of the Australian economy during 2008-2009 that constituted a divergence from the comparatively passive economics of the last few decades. This stimulation however, while a legitimate and successful example of economic management, pales in comparison to pre-Hawke government Keynsianism, and was confined to the context of the Global Financial Crisis as a temporary measure.

On the matter of disclosure, I have since resigned from the Australian Labor Party. 

Changes to some of the original text have been made for the purposes of style and flow, however the substance of the arguments remains the same.

***

If after hearing what Howard and Costello have had to say, you’re still willing to have the size of your housing repayments or pay packet riding on this lot (The Howard Government), then you’re either so stinking rich as to not have to care about such things, or you’re just being mislead. There is no reason at all to think that the Libs will deliver “strong economic management” for you.

For most Australians, let’s face it, the credibility of the Government on the economy stems from gut feelings. This is understandable given the complexities of the issue and the amount of spare time working Australians have available to consider such issues. If you are like many, by the time you get home from work and get in front of a newspaper, the net or the telly (assuming the kids or paper work haven’t gobbled up what’s left of your time), you’re already pretty worn out and a long-winded discussion is going to tire you further.

The Libs have been great at exploiting this. With this kind of environment for voters, it understandably takes time for any disinformation the Government have spun to be analyzed in public discourse and exposed as false. By the time the truth is well known, it can be too late. The truth of “children overboard” took time to filter through so that when the facts were out, the election was well and truly over. Scrutiny of the role of DFAT in the AWB scandal was so protracted that by the time DFAT’s role was beginning to surface, people had switched off.

The economy is at least as complex as any of these examples of postponed and protracted public debate.

So I’ll try my best to be concise with your time in mind. Please do follow the links if your curiosity is aroused.

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