UPDATE, Nov 22: The striking Baiada poultry workers have won their campaign and the company has backed down. The workers won a 4% a year pay rise over 2 years. They also won increased union and delegate rights and increased redundancy payments to 42 week maximum (up from 20 weeks). Workers employed at the Baiada-owned GKK Enterprises poultry factory who were suspended after taking industrial action to support their Victorian colleagues have been reinstated. The new agreement also includes an equal opportunity, site rates for contractors and casuals, arbitration rights at Fair Work Australia and the right for casual employees to convert to permanent employment after six months.
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The main slogan on the Baiada workers’ picket line in Melbourne’s western suburbs is “No more $10! No more cash in hand.”
This is because the Baiada poultry processing plant in Laverton is progressively replacing permanent workers with cash-in-hand workers on $10 an hour. This is well below the minimum wage of $15.51 an hour.
The replacement of permanent workers with contractors, labour hire workers and cash-in-hand sub-contractors is the main reason workers began an indefinite strike on November 9. All permanent workers are members of the National Union of Workers (NUW).
Since the strike began, the workers have come under sustained attack from the media, in particular Murdoch journalist Miranda Devine. The media have focused on an incident on the first night of the picket when a security guard repeatedly drove his car at the picket line.
But the media reported the picketers were violent and intimidating when they tried to remove the keys from the ignition.
There has been little media condemnation of the security guard repeatedly using a car as a battering ram against a crowd of people.
NUW delegate Gabriel Ayuen told Green Left Weekly: “We went on strike because of job security and cash-in-hand [workers]. Baiada sacks permanent people and replaces them with contractors.
“Health and safety is bad for everybody but it is worst for casuals and cash-in-hand workers.
“The worker who was decapitated [last year] was a subcontractor so he wasn’t covered by Baiada for WorkCover.
“We are trying to win a clause in our agreement that if the company uses contractors, they have to be paid more than permanents.”
Ayuen said Baiada’s workplace was not safe.
“They get you to drive the forklift where it is unsafe. If you refuse, they get someone else. If you do drive it and have an accident, they blame you. They don’t stop the machines when people are cleaning them.
“The job where you’re hanging the chicken at the end of the line injures your back and shoulder. Because the machines go so fast, the chickens fall off the machine and hit workers in the head.
“Boners work 10 to 15 hour shifts and have to work fast because they’re paid by the kilo. The boners are all cash-in-hand workers so they’re not covered by compo. When boners cut themselves, management bandages them up and sends them back to do boning. If they continue to bleed, they get bandaged up again and sent back to do boning.
“Jobs that are meant to be done by two or three people are done by one person. Another issue is the heights that people are lifting from, which causes injury.
“The company gets workers to downplay accidents when they report them.
“There’s also psychological injury from bullying and intimidation. As soon as you start working at Baiada, you start thinking about how to get out of there.
“The contractors run shell companies so if someone gets injured they … shut down the company and start another company.”
Ayuen described the intimidation he experienced when he became a delegate. “When I became a delegate, they demoted me, changed my shift and took away my overtime,” he said.
Baiada has tried to introduce a non-union agreement but the workers rejected it.
The workers went straight to an indefinite strike, Ayuen said, “because that’s the only thing that Baiada will listen to”.
Another worker told GLW that it wasn’t until the strike and the picket line began that she realised how much intimidation company management was using against some groups of workers, particularly Vietnamese women workers.
Baiada has allegedly been trying to force the cash-in-hand workers to attack the picket line. In one instance, the picketers were told that some cash-in-hand workers were going to attack picketing workers with their boning knives. In the end, the attack didn’t happen.
On November 16, a small group of cash-in-hand workers were mobilised to protest against the strike outside Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s office. Crikey revealed the two contact people for the protest were former Liberal Party candidates Jason Aldworth and Hamish Jones.
Crikey said many of the cash-in-hand workers at the protest “were reluctant to protest and had to have their arm twisted” to take part.
It appears that senior Liberal Party figures, such as industrial relations spokesperson Eric Abetz, are keen to use the Baiada dispute to attack the Labor government’s Fair Work Act for being “too soft” on industrial action.
During the first week of the strike, poultry farmer Les Peel, from the Victorian Farmers Federation’s Chicken Meat Group, visited the workers.
Peel said poultry farmers in western Victoria had spent $250,000 to fight off Baiada’s attempts to introduce secret individual contracts for poultry farmers in the area. Peel said that the workers had his full support.
At one point, the striking workers feared security guards and scabs were massing to attack the picket line. Later, one of the security guards came to the striking workers and said: “I can’t do this [security] job anymore. You have my full support.”
Workers in Inghams and Steggles have been taking up collections to help sustain the Baiada workers.
In Adelaide, workers for Baiada-owned Adelaide Poultry refused to do overtime. Sixteen of them were immediately suspended from work.
John Camilleri, whose family is worth $495 million, owns Baiada. In 2009, Baiada bought the Bartter-Steggles group, giving the company 35% of the Australian poultry market. Baiada now owns the Lilydale and Steggles brands.
[Donations to Workers Solidarity Network (Baiada Strike) should be deposited to Carboni Workers Club ... BSB: 803226 Acc: 10077. Show your support for the Baiada workers at www.betterjobsbetterchicken.org.au. Visit the picket line at 17 Pipe Road, Laverton.]