Australia: Poultry workers strike for decent pay and conditions

Violence and intimidation from management and police

Workers at the Baiada poultry processing plant in Melbourne, Australia began an an indefinite strike and picket last Wednesday, 9 November. Picketers have already beaten back several attempts to break the picket line, including a violent attack by riot police last Friday night.

Baiada is Australia’s largest poultry company turning over A$1.195 billion last year. Business Review Weekly estimated this year that the Baiada family has a net worth of A$495 million. Baiada is the primary supplier of poultry Coles and Aldi, two of the big three super markets, as well as supplying fast food chains like KFC, Red Rooster and Nandos.

Two workplace deaths in recent years have made Baiada notorious. The first death occurred in December 2005 when Mario Azzopardi was crushed by a 550kg steel cage. The cage had been positioned by an unlicensed and untrained fork lift driver.

The second death occurred in August last year when 34 year old Surel Singh was decapitated by a processing machine whilst cleaning it. He had been bullied into cleaning the machine by management after his shift had finished. He was unfamiliar with the area of the plant he was ordered to work in and the machine was still operating at its full speed.

Alongside huge health and safety issues, and high levels of bullying and harassment, the Baiada workers are fighting for decent wages and secure employment. At the moment many of the workers are employed on a casual basis or as ‘independent contractors’. Many people are paid ‘off the books’ with some receiving as little as A$7 an hour due to these dodgy arrangements.

The company has been using violence and intimidation to try and break the strike. Dozens of security guards were employed to menace the strikers and on the first day of the picket a security guard attempted to drive a car through a group of workers. Despite badly injuring one of the workers he was stopped and forced to retreat.

On Friday the company was successful in getting a court injunction against the National Union of Workers (NUW), which represents the bulk of the workers on site. Later that night around 80 police attempted to break the line of more than 120 workers and supporters. Again due to the determination of the workers the police were unable to break the line.

Despite one worker being hospitalised with serious injuries after the clash, the workers remain in high spirits. A very militant section of the workforce at Baiada is the Vietnamese women. These women spend hours upon hours on the picket and have been the staunchest in the face of intimidation. Many don’t speak English and a member of the Socialist Party has played an important role translating for and discussing with these workers.

Throughout the dispute Baiada has attempted to move production elsewhere. While it is illegal for other workers to organise solidarity industrial action with the Baiada workers, other companies are clearly organising industrial support for Baiada management. This contradiction points directly to the anti-worker, pro-business nature of ‘secondary boycott’ laws.

Baiada has broken every law in the book, yet has received nothing more than a slap on the wrist. It is clear that workers can not rely on the law or the courts for justice. Decent wages and conditions need to be fought for. Conditions in this factory will only improve through the collective action of the workers themselves.

The immediate task at hand is for the trade union movement as a whole to mobilise support for this strike. The NUW should also be working to get members from other workplaces to bolster the picket.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council (the state based trade union council) needs to call a cross-union demonstration in support of the Baiada workers. We can not accept a situation where workers are beaten by police and bullied by thuggish security guards when fighting for decent wages and conditions.

Regardless of the laws, any employer who assists Baiada by producing, transporting or storing their stock should also be targeted. The retail chains and fast food restaurants need to hear the message loud and clear: “If you continue to use chicken produced by super-exploited workers you are effectively entering into this dispute”.

It is of the utmost importance that this strike is successful. If we allow dodgy companies like Baiada to treat workers with such contempt it will only give encouragement to other employers to follow suit. On the other hand, a victory at Baiada would set a brilliant example for the thousands of other casualised, bullied and underpaid workers across Australia to stand up and fight back.

Here we publish a low-light video of the police attack last Friday night, 11 November. Police march up to the picketers who have sat down and linked arms. When they are unable to remove picketers they retreat amid cheers and chants.

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November 2011