Breaking your back for 18 hours a day on $11 an hour. Going home every night to a house your boss forced you into, crammed with 20 other people sharing a single bathroom. That’s the life of hundreds of migrant workers in Baiada’s poultry processing plants, according to an investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO).
“We will work our way up and down the supply chain in pursuit of those who are flouting workplace laws, to ensure workers are being paid properly and treated fairly”, said a FWO spokesperson after the release of the report.
Baiada is one of Australia’s largest chicken producers and one of the country’s biggest privately owned companies.
Did FWO barge through the front door of its corporate office and demand answers? Did inspectors storm into Baiada plants and slam down closure orders? Did the Ombudsman issue a solitary fine to the company’s owners, the 24th richest family in Australia? No.
The only doors opened in the wake of the report were those into the homes of migrant workers. In what was dubbed Operation Cloudburst, a team of Border Protection officers and Fair Work inspectors raided and arrested 38 “illegal” migrant workers, accusing two of them of being labour hire contractors. All 38 now face deportation, the latest victims of a strategy to deflect outrage at the crimes of the powerful onto the powerless.
In a small flurry of public statements immediately after the report was released, the FWO threatened to pursue Baiada with “all the legal action we are able to”. So far, it has been unable specify any action planned against the company. When Red Flag contacted it for details, a representative said that “ongoing commentary is not appropriate”.
One thing it has done is unleash some punishing invitations. As part of its report, the FWO invited Baiada to “work with us to improve compliance on its sites”. It followed that up with a request that Baiada declare three types of non-legally binding responsibility: “We ask Baiada to publicly declare that it has an ethical, moral and social responsibility to join with the FWO to stamp out exploitation of vulnerable workers at its work sites”.
Both Baiada and the FWO blame the abhorrent working conditions on labour hire contractors. Investigators discovered a labyrinthine structure of companies engaged by Baiada to staff its operations. Many of these companies refused to meet FWO inspectors or folded days before scheduled meetings.
Some of the blame certainly lies with this parasitic layer, which profits from the hyper-exploitation of Baiada workers, and others. But they are small fish and exist to let the real culprits off the hook.
Crucially, labour hire contracting affords companies like Baiada the protection of deniability. Explaining the difficulty in taking enforcement action, deputy ombudsman Michael Campbell said that owing to the prevalence of labour hire arrangements, “it’s very hard to pin down an individual to hold accountable”. He went on to describe the layers of fly-by-night contractors as “like syndicated crime”.
This is a neat way of avoiding blaming the bosses at Baiada, who can be pinned down five days a week at their corporate headquarters at 625 Great Western Highway, Pendle Hill in NSW.
While Baiada is in the spotlight at the moment, complex and shady labour hire arrangements, like the ones detailed in the FWO report, are not an aberration.
The Recruitment and Consulting Services Association (RSCA), an employers’ association, admits that illegal and “unscrupulous” labour hire practices are common in the accommodation and food services, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting and construction industries.
However, it says that a “regulatory regime that focuses on labour hire restriction and enforcement would be a step backwards for business and on-hire companies”. RCSA’s concerns are unfounded. There is little prospect of any such regulations being imposed.
The real organised criminals, ensconced in the boardrooms of Baiada, Woolworths and Cobino Farms, will remain free to profit from the miserable conditions imposed on the people who staff their farms, factories and warehouses.
In late 2011, workers at Baiada’s Laverton North processing plant in Melbourne’s west decided they wouldn’t let the boardroom have it their way any longer. They went on strike and picketed the plant for 13 days, standing up to repeated court injunctions and a police attempt to break the picket.
Their action came about a year after labour hire worker Sarel Singh was decapitated while hosing down a chicken processing line that was left running.
One of the workers’ key demands was conversion to direct employment by the company after six months of employment by one of Baiada’s web of labour hire contractors. They won it. They also won a pay rise for workers still employed by labour hire companies.
Their actions, more than anything on offer from regulators, show the kind of fight that is needed.