Lives, not just jobs: Government and employers must fund Q fever vaccinations

Q fever: It’s something that every meat worker should know and fear, but many people in Australia have no idea even exists. It has a mortality rate of 10%. If you work with livestock, Q fever could be a part of your life – and if you’re not careful, it can be the reason you die.

All meat workers in Australia must be tested for and vaccinated against Q fever by law, their names added to an official register. Q fever causes symptoms that can last for months or years, cripple you, and even kill you. Dr. Deborah Mills describes it as “among the most costly and severe infectious diseases in Australia”. It is so infectious that it’s listed as a Class B biological warfare agent. Q fever is serious business.

So why is our government and the meat industry dropping the ball on keeping our meat workers safe?

Your health and safety is your employer’s legal responsibility

Employers have both a legal and a moral obligation to make sure that their workers are safe. Meat workers are an at-risk group, who serve in a hazardous environment at all hours of the day and night to bring food to tables around Australia. Yet when it comes to being safe from this disease – a rolling series of tests costing hundreds of dollars – employers provide no financial support.

Some employers ‘generously’ offer to ‘conveniently’ deduct the cost of these tests from their workers’ wages. This gesture is not enough. Section 19 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act provides that employers must take all reasonable measures to ensure the health and safety of their workers, and yet workers are forced to shell out from their own (underpaid) wages to ensure that they won’t be killed on the job.

Australian meat workers have laws that are supposed to protect them if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, many migrant workers passing through Australia do not.

Stories of migrant workers being exploited in the meat industry are as horrific as they are numerous. Here at the AMIEU Newcastle & Northern we’ve helped thousands of these workers recover hundreds of thousands in stolen wages and blown the whistle on dangerous, exploitative working conditions.

Helpless and alone

“There’s more where that came from” is the unofficial policy of some employers in the meat industry when it comes to the exploitable, expendable, and inexpensive migrant workers. These workers – classed as “contractors” by companies looking to cut every possible cost – have to organise and pay for their own Q fever tests.

Some of them can’t afford it. But they can’t afford to stop working either, because the labour hire company who ‘found’ these willing ‘contractors’ overseas will let the Immigration Department know. So they slip through the cracks.

Imagine what happens to a migrant worker who starts displaying Q fever symptoms in a no-tolerance industry like meat processing. With limited rights, little support network and nobody looking out for them, they are on their own – thrown out like trash. The labour hire company drops them and washes their hands of the matter. The meat workers union does what we can to help. But this situation should never happen in the first place.

We call on employers everywhere to step up and meet their legal obligations under the Workplace Health and Safety Act, and start paying for the safety of their workers by fully covering the cost of Q fever tests and vaccinations. The last five years have seen the meat processing sector grow with record profits and record kills — and the cost of paying for workers to be vaccinated would be a tiny drop in this ocean. Surely this should be a part of their strategy in investing for the future?

We also call on the Federal Government to re-introduce the subsidy for the Q fever vaccine. It’s more than just Australia’s productivity on the line – it’s the lives of meat workers, whether they’re clocking in at the plant in the town where they grew up, or just passing through. All of them deserve the same protection and support.