Surrounded by dairy farms, Colac is a semi-rural town 80 kilometres from Geelong in Victoria. The town itself is something of an industrial centre, with an abattoir, a water treatment plant, a dairy factory and a timber yard. It is also a place where many elderly people from the surrounding area live in its five aged care centres. It is politically conservative, a safe Liberal seat at the state level and divided between two federal seats, one held by Labor the other by Liberal education minister Dan Tehan.

The neoliberal employment model – casualisation with weak unionisation – is well entrenched in the town. Low wages, poor conditions and the semi-indentured nature of temporary work visa provisions mean many workers work at multiple sites over the course of a week and are reluctant to speak up or stay home when ill. Some have reportedly been told that if they’re sick, they’ll lose their job, which potentially also means their right to remain in Australia.

Abattoir workers, for example, may work full time at night, then during the day doing food deliveries to aged care centres and shifts at the local supermarket. This greatly increases the chance of spreading illness.

Abattoirs are like petri dishes incubating disease, and a flare-up is just waiting to happen. There are several factors involved. First are hiring and employment issues. The abattoir, Australian Lamb Company (ALC), doesn’t hire workers directly. Instead, it has set up a separate company, Australian Lamb Labour Hire. Of the total workforce of 700, many workers are on temporary visas, supposedly filling skill gaps, but in reality most are unskilled. Many of these workers are Sudanese. The conditions are harsh, so turnover is high, but temporary visa workers have limited choices.

Their enterprise bargaining agreement covers a mix of temporary visa, casual, part-time and permanent workers. The agreement includes a clause that allows for non-union “individual flexibility agreements”, as well as provision for “sponsored employees” that specifies a different wage structure for temporary visa holders, with rates covered by the migration act. Overtime is common, but the sponsored employees clause makes no provision for penalty rates, only a flat annualised rate of pay. The union, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU), opposed the sponsored employees clause, but the Fair Work Commission allowed it.

Secondly, the working conditions themselves are an important factor enabling the virus to easily spread. Despite newer technology, meatworks are still very labour intensive and with the repetitious nature of working on a moving chain and conveyor belt, injuries such as repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel, rotator cuff, spinal injuries right through to serious knife and machinery wounds (sometimes fatal) are the result. The nature of shift work means scores of people leave and arrive at the same time each day, making it near impossible to socially distance according to AMIEU Victorian State Secretary Paul Conway who spoke to the ABC last week. Whole families work at the same plant, which means if one gets ill, “it’s just a domino effect” he says.

But the most concerning is disease transmission. The stringent requirements of the Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points and export standards (ALC is a halal, export facility) mean abattoirs now use daily powerful cleaning agents and bactericides which has radically reduced surface contaminants. However, airborne contamination remains a serious risk. Working at speed, side-by-side in a very humid atmosphere (the result of the constant sterilising of knives and other equipment) means that if anyone coughs or sneezes, viral and other particles quickly become airborne and can stay that way for hours. There are no provisions for effective removal of airborne particles. The only solution is to shut the meatworks down until the virus is eradicated from the community.

If wages are low and conditions substandard in the meatworks, aged care centres are worse. There is a high turnover of workers and they are poorly trained. The recent Royal Commission in Aged Care Quality and Safety found that 75 percent of centres did not meet the minimum three star standards. While standards for nursing staff do meet requirements and pay is reasonable thanks to union pressure, it is a different story for food service attendants, patient care assistants, kitchen staff, laundry workers and gardeners, all covered by the United Workers Union.

It is common practice to train and test prospective workers online, using multiple choice questions and in English only. The unmonitored tests can easily be filled in by someone else, as the company would well know.

In areas of poor job security and low wages, the interconnectedness of a community shows up in the spread of workplaces, schools, places of worship and entertainment that employ the same people in different roles. Often women and men from the same family, for example, work at ALC and aged care centres or supermarkets, while their children, apart from going to school, work part-time at the fast-food outlets.

Many casualised and migrant workers found themselves faced with the very real prospect of no jobs, no income when they were scandalously denied both the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments, by a federal government which praises the likes of neoliberalism’s hero former-UK prime minister Maggie Thatcher. With poor or weak hygiene enforcement and low union coverage, a virus like COVID-19 can quickly wreak havoc.

It is an indictment of the authorities – state, federal, local and private – that all these workers, no matter where they worked, were not placed on JobKeeper or JobSeeker payments immediately the virus hit, or at the very least tested regularly, isolated or hospitalised safely, with assurances of paid pandemic leave, employment security and full wages. Neoliberal profit-taking has once again triumphed over workers health and well being, and the result has been disastrous for the people of Colac.