American Nightmare: The future of Australian meat work under Turnbull

Australians were shocked to read a damning report from Oxfam this week about how poultry workers at Tyson Foods plants across America were routinely soiling themselves at work. Unable to take bathroom breaks due to relentless production speeds and inhumanly demanding schedules, some workers even reported wearing diapers to work to cope.

This isn’t the first time Tyson Foods has been embroiled in controversy. As the largest food processor in the USA, Tyson oversees one of the largest low-paid work forces in the OECD, with a string of industrial relations controversies as long as your arm.

In March this year the Supreme Court awarded thousands of meat packing workers nearly $3 million in damages as part of an ongoing underpayment scandal. Tyson managers have been caught by undercover immigration agents attempting to arrange for the delivery of hundreds of illegal immigrants as cheap labour. Tyson spent years bribing meat processing plant inspectors in Mexico, then had to cough up $4 million in penalties in 2011 when it was caught out. They had to pay another $4 million in 2013 after gassing their workers with ammonia.

(And that’s not even mentioning millions in environmental fines from the illegal dumping of wastewater, the price racketeering, the ongoing animal abuse controversies and boycotts, being slapped by the USDA over falsely claiming their products are free of antibiotics…)

American Horror Story

Poultry workers in America get roughly 2% of the money that consumers spend on their products, just 2 cents for every dollar. The other 98 cents goes right back to the company — so it won’t surprise you to learn that Tyson Foods is on track to make record profits this year. In fact, shares have hit an all time high.

Most meat workers in America earn around $11 an hour, an already appallingly low wage that now actually buys you 40% less than it would have in the 1980s (meanwhile, Tyson’s president and CEO took home $12.2 million last financial year). Poultry workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome at more than seven times the national average, are employed on a casual basis where they can be terminated for no reason, and over-represented by economically disadvantaged groups who have no other choice but to accept these outrageous conditions.

Workers have no sick days, and can be penalised or sacked for calling in sick, so they turn up to work every day. They can’t afford to see a doctor if they get injured, so they turn up to work every day, and the injury gets worse. They don’t get paid overtime, which they do every single shift. And they’re not even allowed to take bathroom breaks.

This is the horror story that is deregulated American labour. This is the end result of decades of campaigning by massive corporations to destroy unions, relax labour laws, to remove government oversight, and to squeeze every last drop of blood out of a workforce regarded as entirely disposable.

Good thing this is only happening in America, right? …right?

An unfair go

You don’t have to travel too far in Australia to hear about workers in the meat processing sector who will tell you similar stories.

Companies operating in Australia are now adopting this American model, resulting in a race to the bottom — lobbying the government to weaken labour laws and lift restrictions on international workers, while enforcing draconian workplace agreements that force their underpaid workforce into casual, disposable positions.

Workers have told us about holding their bladder for hours until it hurts, knowing that their bathroom break has come and gone and if they step away they’ll be sacked. We’ve also heard from people who have soiled themselves and been forced to keep working, though fortunately, these cases are much rarer than they appear overseas. There are now companies operating in Australia that only offer their employees 10 minute breaks each shift, period. That break includes the time it takes to walk there and back, to go the bathroom, to have a snack, and the clock starts the second you step away from the production line. You’d better be back when your time is up.

Union-busting through over-work

This is a deliberate tactic with two great outcomes for the company: Not only does it extract maximum profit by keeping the production at dangerous speeds, but it also means that exhausted workers use their spare time taking care of their basic human needs and are too tired and busy to think about organising themselves and speaking up. Combined with the constant fear of being sacked from your job for being even a minute late back to the production line, it works wonders to keep the employees under control and away from the negotiating table.

It’s absolutely no coincidence that workers at American food processing giants like Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s and Sandersons, which Oxfam investigated, have extremely low union representation. Malcolm Turnbull’s recent ham-fisted plan to force unemployed youth into a $4-an-hour ‘internship’ program – less than half of the minimum wage in the USA, and one quarter of the Australian minimum wage – is just another step towards the Liberal dream of a wholly deregulated labour market, and a world where corporations act with total impunity in the pursuit of profits. It’s another example of how out of touch the Liberal Government is with the needs of struggling Australian workers.

This nightmare future can be avoided. Just last month, the Meat Workers Union was successful in forcing the biggest food processor in the world, Teys Cargill, to cough up thousands in back pay to Queensland workers. If you’re being worked until you pass out, if you’re not getting treated fairly — talk to your union. We can help.