Casualisation is helping COVID-19 spread in abattoirs

The meatworkers union is fighting to ensure safe distancing between workers.

While Australia has, so far, managed to flatten the curve, an alarming series of COVID-19 outbreaks are still spreading in workplaces where casualisation is rife. The meatworks is one such industry.

Meatworkers work long casual shifts in close proximity to one another, in an environment that is cool and moist. The work is manually intensive and is disproportionately casual. These conditions have created a perfect storm for COVID-19 clusters in abattoirs throughout the world. Australia has not been spared, with the Cedar Meats abattoir in Melbourne becoming a hotspot.

In the United States, President Donald Trump invoked the Defence Production Act, ordering meat packers to continue working throughout the pandemic. As a result, there are now approximately 5000 low-paid workers — the majority being migrants and undocumented workers — who have contracted COVID-19 in abattoirs there.

At the time of writing, there were more than 86 COVID-19 cases linked to the Cedar Meats abattoir — of which 57 are workers — since April 24. So far no one has died. Almost half of Victoria’s coronavirus cases are in the suburbs surrounding Cedar Meats, and includes a student and a worker from a Footscray nursing home.

A spokesperson for the Victorian branch of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union told Green Left on May 12 that the virus outbreak at Cedar Meats “could have been worse” if not for the union’s fight to ensure safe distancing between employees who use knifes.

They said that the meat industry in Australia is largely smaller operators, compared to the large abattoirs in the US where employees, in many cases, work shoulder-to-shoulder.

In spite of the better conditions here, the union spokesperson said that workers are still being exploited. Many are recruited overseas, pay their fare to Australia with a holiday visa, sign up with a recruitment agency and are rotated through different abattoirs in regional towns and various recruitment agencies for the duration of their visa.

The union is trying to ensure that employers improve social distancing. Currently, it is fighting to ensure that just 10 employees use the change rooms at any one time.

Dean Cardigan, a former abattoir worker who worked in the industry for two years, told Green Left that about 60% of the workforce were migrant workers, and some did not understand their work rights. He had been a casual, on probation for a year, with no sick leave or holiday pay prior to becoming a full-time employee.

The casualisation of workplaces have exacerbated the virus outbreaks because, without sick leave, employees are unable to take time off work when other workers test positive. An anonymous source told Guardian Australia that they had no option but to continue working at Cedar Meats even when other employees had tested positive for the virus.

It is becoming clear that COVID-19 has lifted a veil on some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in Australia, who are suffering disproportionately in this pandemic. Without changes in the industry, there is no doubt that abattoirs will continue to be coronavirus hotspots.

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