When Winnie cut open her finger working on a processing line at Covino Farms in Gippsland, her boss was eating an apple. Winnie had severed her nerves and come close to the bone. Her boss made her wait, bleeding, until he finished his apple before he drove her to the hospital.
“I’m only one person, so my boss doesn’t care about me”, Winnie says, speaking to Red Flag with the assistance of an interpreter. “His attitude is ‘If you die, I don’t care’ … You’re just like a machine for them.” A few days later, according to a report by ABC’s Four Corners, Winnie went to the home of Covino’s labour hire contractor Samnang Huor (Sam) to collect her pay. There, Sam pinned her wounded hand down on his bed so hard that he opened her stitches.
“I tried my hardest to push him away but my hand was injured. I knew my hand was bleeding because I used all my strength to push him away. But he’s very tall, so even though I tried with all my strength, I couldn’t push him away. Then he put his hands into my clothes and touched my breasts.”
Known as Australia’s Salad King, Covino produces lettuce and other vegetables for major supermarkets and fast food chains including KFC.
Winnie’s is one of many stories of abuse at the company. Four Corners reported that Covino has been issued with 30 improvement notices for safety breaches in the last seven years. It aired allegations of 22-hour shifts and $2 million stolen wages each year. Winnie stopped working at Covino in April, but she hasn’t left. Instead, she’s taking up the task of organising workers there with the National Union of Workers.
“I’m worried that next time it’ll be my friend cutting their finger”, she says. “I want to help not only myself but others as well so that others don’t have to be subject to the same treatment.”
Shortly after the Four Corners story went to air, Winnie and other short-term workers discussed a one-day strike, “to show Covino we’re important”, she says. “Striking is a very effective way for workers to demonstrate if there’s anything happening at the workplace that’s not fair or if you have any issue that’s not being heard. Protest, strike and occupation are very effective ways to do it collectively.”
Covino Farms is made up of a number of different sections, each with about 100 workers, which she says is a challenge for coordination. There are also divisions based on job and visa classifications. Winnie says that there are short-term workers (she calls them “backpackers”, though a production line in regional Victoria will be most of the Australia they’ll see), longer term workers on student visas and people who live permanently in the area. She says the latter are more worried about long-term job security.
When workers discussed the idea of a strike, Winnie argued for a course of action to make it happen: a petition to get every worker to commit and a decision on the day to do it. In the end, she says, it didn’t eventuate because of a lack of organisation.
Winnie still thinks a strike is possible at Covino.
“It would affect the company in the bottom line. Also it would put pressure on them to really listen to what the backpackers and even the locals’ issues are and to try to fix them.”
Accounting for where the idea to strike came from, Winnie said that she and other short-term workers were student activists in Taiwan and learnt the power of collective action during large anti-government protests in 2014 that shut down the central business district of the capital Taipei.
Since the Four Corners story aired, the workers have made gains, Winnie says. The company now pays workers the award rate of $21 an hour instead of the $14 they received before. Workers are no longer forced to pay $11 each per day for a 10-minute bus ride to and from work; instead they are nominally allowed to use their own transport.
There is still much to win, according to Winnie. The company makes short-term workers feel like criminals, she says. Even if they hold valid visas, Covino makes them feel like they are illegal, through a combination of threats and information control – isolating workers in houses owned by labour hire contractors.
Winnie says there are spies planted in some of these houses, assisting the company to monitor and intimidate the workers in them. Adequate housing is one of the next things that Covino workers need to fight for, she says.
Soon after the Four Corners report, Covino issued a statement saying that it had severed ties with Sam Huor’s labour hire company. “It’s bullshit”, says Winnie. What it did was set up a new contracting company with a different name. Huor is registered as co-director and equal shareholder of the new company. Covino later claimed this was a mistake. It doesn’t deny that Huor still works at Covino. Management defends him on the basis that police didn’t find enough evidence to substantiate the claims against him.
For Winnie, fighting Covino is about more than winning better housing or striking at the power of labour hire contractors. She says organising is a step towards gaining respect. She believes that life can be better for workers.
Winnie’s got a lot of fight in her. “I think one day we can change anything”, she says, “because we’re already together”.