“Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Zero!”
A cheer went up from the gathered crowd as the clock struck midnight. This was not a New Year’s Eve party: clad in the red shirts of the United Workers Union, the workers from an Ingham’s chicken-processing plant were on strike.
Production ground to a halt from late in the night on Thursday, 21 September, as workers picketed the northern Adelaide processing plant. They were later joined by the smaller Perth plant.
Ingham’s is the biggest processing company of chicken and turkey in the southern hemisphere, providing chicken to KFC, Woolworth’s, Aldi and McDonald’s, among others. The whole production process takes place at these plants: live chickens go in, and chicken skewers and breast cuts come out.
Everyone works at breakneck speed. Striking workers accused management of deliberately running clocks in the factory too fast or slow to control the pay and hours of work. Bathroom breaks are timed, and their number was recently halved to increase productivity.
“In the injector area especially, there is somebody ... their job is to stand behind the worker with a stopwatch, timing everybody. Not just once a day or one hour, from 5:30 in the morning until 1:36 when we go home, they stay there,” Jack,* a worker in the injector area, said to Red Flag.
“It’s a really tough job”, Jack continued. “The palm of my hand had an operation; I feel tingling in my fingers, numbness, especially when I have a very heavy job in the day. The company sent me to a doctor [but] did not compensate for my injury. I had surgery on my hand. The surgeon told me you have to rest at home for two to four weeks, but the company called me back after two weeks. The surgeon wrote down that for four weeks I should have light duty work, but they put me on light duty for only two weeks. The reason why my hand is still like this is because I didn’t get enough time for my injury.”
Thanks to this acute exploitation and recent inflated prices, company profits have increased by 72 percent since last year. Meanwhile, many of the workers can barely afford the chicken they produce on an hourly rate of $21.50-$27.
“The cost of living right now, that is a pretty big hit for everyone”, said Alex,* a dock worker, to Red Flag. “People have families to feed. They [management] get nice bonuses at the end of the year and we have to decide whether we can fill up our cars this week.”
In negotiations with the union, Ingham’s offered a below-inflation 3.9 percent increase for the next year, followed by a 3.5 percent increase for the following two years. Around a thousand workers rejected this offer and instead chose to strike. Their main demand was a pay rise, but they also wanted more breaks and casual to permanent conversion at six months.
“Everything is going up, now the rental, everything”, Sam,* another worker, told Red Flag. “We are fighting today for the pay rise. We stand up together, we fight together, not for ourselves, for all the workers.”
Ingham’s has a largely migrant workforce, and many are trying to support their families overseas with their meagre wages.
“They are able to put more pressure on the workers because most people are refugees”, Jack explains. “They are very vulnerable because they think they are alone, and for this reason the company uses these people, they take maximum advantage, slavery.”
The crowd grew at 2:00am as the early morning shift workers arrived—most of them wearing union shirts and ready to join the picket. Some came to scab but were soon surrounded by strikers who fiercely argued with them. The crowd cheered every time one of these workers was won over and donned a red union shirt. Hardened scabs lingered angrily outside the gates, unable to spot an opening to sneak in.
By morning, the site was bustling with activity. When decisions had to be made, workers burst into arguments with each other, discussing the best tactics to win the strike. If they saw scabs trying to get in, or trucks with produce trying to get out, they jumped into action on the picket line, chanting “Nothing in and nothing out!”.
At the end of the first day, they decided to extend the strike indefinitely until the company met their demands.
By the following day, the smell of rotting chicken wafted throughout the picket—management pushed the trash as close as possible to the striking workers. One of the kill yard workers commented that, however bad, it was going to be worse inside for the managers and scabs.
Chicken began to disappear from the shelves in major supermarkets across South Australia. The strike was putting a serious dent in Ingham’s profits.
The company finally gave in on Tuesday after almost a week of striking. The offer now stands at a 5.12 percent pay rise for the first year and 4 percent for the subsequent years. This is a victory for Ingham’s workers, made possible only by their determined strike action.
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of those involved.
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