July 2021


On the chain

By André Dao, Michael Green and Sherry Huang
Image of Midfield Meat International, Warrnambool, May 2021

Midfield Meat International, Warrnambool, May 2021. © Nicole Cleary / The Age

A Victorian abattoir dispute shone a light on a system designed to exploit migrant workers’ hopes and ambitions

In May 2016, Jack Zhao posted to a private Facebook page to advertise for meatworkers at Midfield Meat International, an abattoir in Warrnambool on Victoria’s south-west coast. “Today,” he wrote in Mandarin, “is an important day. I am happy to announce that we are about to expand our business. Ten years ago, the first group of Chinese 457 visa holders arrived at Midfield and boosted our revenue up to ten times! We became one of the top 50 private corporations in the country. Today, another 50 Chinese 457 visa holders arrived at Midfield.”

Though Jack Zhao wrote of “we” and “our”, he was not actually employed by Midfield. Instead, he was a labour hire contractor, tasked with recruiting workers from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan for Australian abattoirs. But without any Mandarin-speaking supervisors, the company effectively relied on Zhao and other labour hirers to manage its foreign workforce. Zhao’s Facebook post outlined what the latest round of recruits could expect: “Good 457 workers will get your PR status, you will have five things in your hand: wife, kids, house, money, car! As long as you are a hard worker, here is your great opportunity.”

Naturally, such an opportunity doesn’t come cheap. Some of these new migrant-worker recruits had paid a Chinese broker up to $70,000 to have a shot at “PR”, shorthand for a visa with permanent residency: the 186 visa allows the holder to live in Australia indefinitely, with work and study rights, access to Medicare, the ability to sponsor relatives, and a pathway to Australian citizenship. This, then, was the bargain: find the money or borrow it against your future wages and work for a single abattoir for at least three years on a temporary 457 visa, with limited rights, and, in return, you would get the promise of a ticket to the lucky country.

Facilitating these opportunities is a big business. Zhao’s boss was Zu Neng “Scott” Shi, the director of a network of dozens of labour hire companies providing foreign workers to at least 42 abattoirs around Australia. Between 2008 and 2017 his syndicate generated $349 million in revenue from meatworker recruitment. There was also money to be made exporting the meat. Shi appeared on the Chinese government–owned China Central Television as the “beef boss”, touting his access to high-quality Australian meat for import. The business is opaque: in 2018, the Australian Tax Office accused Shi and his companies of phoenixing – the practice of liquidating a company once it gets into trouble, only to incorporate it again under a new name – and of owing $163 million in unpaid taxes. An industry insider explains the trade like this: “It’s all to do with blood, muscle and bone. It just happens that some is alive and some is dead.”

Like a lot of other workers (many of whose names have been changed here to protect their anonymity), Jie came over with his family. His cousin’s son in Year 6 in China’s Fujian province would finish his homework around 11pm every night, and Jie didn’t want that for his children. For him, life in China was crowded and competitive. It was hard to provide for a family on an abattoir worker’s salary.

Luke also worked in an abattoir in Fujian before coming over. After a human resources manager from Midfield visited his Fujian workplace, Luke and his wife talked it over. In their neighbourhood a few young people were planning to take up employment opportunities overseas, including some from his abattoir. It seemed like a good idea. Luke made a video for Midfield showcasing his boning skills. And then he and his wife were on a plane to Australia. “We were very excited,” he says. “We were thinking that four years later we can get PR and then we don’t have to work in the abattoir.”

Winnie came to Australia for love. In China, she had graduated with a bachelor’s degree and had been working in an office, while her husband was an abattoir worker. He had family in Australia and wanted to join them. Winnie was less sure. “I knew that once I get here, I’ll probably be working as a labourer, so I took a very long time to think about it,” she says. What convinced her? “When we started dating, I felt like this is the one. We’re going to spend the rest of our life together.”

Whether for love, for their children’s futures or for the lifestyle, the new recruits came to Australia ready to uphold their end of the bargain. Gabriel, another Chinese worker who brought over his young family, explains: “As long as we don’t cause any trouble, just be a good worker every single day, then we shouldn’t worry too much about the visa.”

In a message to a WeChat group for his recruited 457 visa holders, Zhao – posting as “Melbourne Jack” – put it differently: “For the new arrivals, we need to do the induction. 1. Safety 2. Hygiene 3. Productivity. Productivity means there’s no easy job, here’s not a charity. Women need to see themselves like men, men need to see themselves like beasts, beasts need to see themselves as robots.”

Colin McKenna’s parents were soldier settlers, granted 78 hectares north of Warrnambool. They received the good news in the winter of 1955. McKenna was only a small boy, but he still remembers his mother clutching the letter that changed their fortunes.

McKenna, who owns Midfield Meat International, has a raspy voice and a direct manner. His media appearances are rare, but when he recounts the early days on their farm, he likes to describe his mother milking a score of cows by hand, under a pine tree.

“Not all farms were big enough, but it really gave people a work ethic,” he told The Weekly Times in 2015. “You get out of bed in the morning and you go to work.”

His work ethic is part of the legend. His son, Dean, who now manages the Warrnambool abattoir, says his father has “a big, big engine – a lot of capacity to get things done”. Now 71 years old, Colin McKenna maintains he’s still the first person through the doors at Midfield, at 4.30am, although his son tries to beat him. “We’re very competitive by nature,” Dean says.

They have grown an export agribusiness that is among the largest and most profitable private companies in the country. There’s the abattoir, plus a milk-processing plant, a fleet of trucks, a meat-distribution arm, and an import/export division that ships to more than 80 countries, as well as farmland for dairy, beef and lamb – nearly a hundred times more land than the original postwar land grant.

After he finished school at a Catholic boys high, Colin McKenna worked as a shearer, then a stock agent. He turned to the meat-processing trade in the mid 1970s, in a deal with the Warrnambool municipal abattoir to process his own livestock. His big break came in 1988, when he bought the meatworks outright.

The public abattoir had been established in 1907, at the current site, on recommendation of the chief veterinary officer after he’d inspected 11 local slaughterhouses. “At some of the places visited,” he wrote to a meeting of the town council, “the filth and foulness found to exist were horrible and depraved beyond description.”

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking realist novel about conditions for migrant workers in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, had been published a year earlier, in 1906. The ensuing scandal – about tainted meat – spurred the introduction of the first federal food safety laws in the United States.

In Warrnambool, on receiving the chief vet’s report, the mayor responded: “Talk about Chicago; this was much worse than Chicago.” The new council-owned slaughterhouse would be part of a nationwide change. In 1908, prime minister Alfred Deakin promised uniform food standards. In the following years, large, publicly owned and thoroughly inspected abattoirs were established in Australian cities. In the middle of the 20th century, municipal abattoirs were built in regional centres. Many ran at a loss, for the benefit of public health. Meanwhile, smaller private abattoirs sprung up to process animals for export.

By the 1980s, the industry was changing dramatically again. The public abattoirs were going out of business and the export plants were bought out by big players. What emerged is today’s highly concentrated industry, dominated by the Brazilian-owned meat giant JBS Australia, and Teys Australia, which is half-owned by a local arm of US food corporation Cargill. In 2017, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission estimated that more than half of the nation’s beef processing was controlled by the five largest companies. Midfield sits outside that level, among a group of medium-scale operations.

When McKenna took over the plant at Warrnambool in 1988 there were 80 employees. Now, with capacity for 1300, it is the biggest private employer in the region.

McKenna remains Midfield Meat International’s sole director. In late November 2020, he signed the director’s report for the most recent financial year. The business had weathered the beginning of the COVID-19 storm, returning a steady pre-tax profit of $30 million, from $721 million in revenue. McKenna approved a dividend of $11 million, double what he’d allowed the year before. According to The Australian’s rich list, his worth increased by $51 million to $462 million, lifting him into 241st place among the nation’s most wealthy.

His favourite pastime befits his wealth: breeding and racing thoroughbreds. McKenna has run at the Melbourne Cup, and has won the Caulfield Cup and the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. He once owned a racehorse – Spin the Bottle – with a coterie that included his local Liberal Party federal and state members, Dan Tehan and Denis Napthine. A scandal bubbled in 2014 when Napthine, then premier and still co-owner of the racehorse, signed off on a $1.5 million grant to Midfield towards an expansion of the meatworks.On January 26 this year, McKenna was awarded a member of the Order of Australia, “for significant service to the community through a range of organisations”. It highlighted his contribution to a new cancer treatment centre in Warrnambool, as well as the racing club, and his donations to build an athletics park, among many other local causes. Around town, the McKennas are renowned for their private charity. In a profile for Farm Online, McKenna was modest and gracious about the OA award, acknowledging the community, his family and his employees: “People vote with their feet. Generally if you do the right thing by them, they’ll do the right thing by you.”

Karl, a backpacker from Hong Kong, gets up at 4am. He shares with a roommate who sleeps in, so he doesn’t stick around. It’s a 20-minute walk to get to the Midfield abattoir, and Karl eats breakfast – a cheese sandwich – while he walks in the dark.

Another backpacker, Hong, from Taiwan, gets to the abattoir by 5am. He makes his way to the waiting room. He doesn’t know if he’ll have work, so each day he waits along with 30 to 40 others to be chosen. Only half – or even less – will be picked, and the mood in the room is tense. “Everybody just keeps playing with their phone, keeping their heads down,” says Hong. But when the managers come in it’s a different story. “We have to smile, because we want to be picked. So we all just turn our heads up like a flock of chicks looking at the mother hen.”

Luke wakes up at 5am. He gets ready while his wife and newborn baby doze and feed. He’s out of the house by 5.30am. Before clock-on time he has to put on all his gear, bought from the abattoir and deducted from his pay every week: the metal apron, the metal gloves.

Benson is on the kill floor with a score of other workers at 6am as the first livestock of the day are pushed in. Two Muslim workers – necessary for the meat to be halal – take it in turn to kill the cows by slicing their necks. Others wait to hook the dead animals onto the belt. Benson, a 29-year-old from Fujian, is stationed on the chain. He’s wearing earplugs provided by the factory, mostly to block out the sound of the machinery, though sometimes the animals make noises too. By the time a carcass gets to him it’s already been cut in half. There are two workers at his station where they take the bones out from the neck. The chain is fast – faster than in the pork abattoir where Benson worked in Fujian. A carcass reaches him every 40 seconds to a minute. In the peak season, the meatworks will process more than 1000 cows each day.

Winnie works on the kill floor too, but with lambs. Midfield is the first abattoir she’s ever stepped into. “The very first day on the kill floor my job was to stamp the lambs’ bodies. And when I looked up at all the lambs hooked above me, their heads were cut off and they were so bloody. It was quite scary.” Now, Winnie’s job is to hook the lambs and cut a hole around the hips, so at the next station they can take out the intestines. After each one she puts her knife in the hot sink behind her and grabs a clean one. There are four workers at Winnie’s station, but they can’t talk. “You have to be very focused.” The repetitive work over three years has given her trouble with her fingers – when she lays her hands flat on a table you can see every joint has swollen to two or three times its normal size.

In Jie’s workshop, they remove the lambs’ skin. “Before you tear off the whole skin, you punch: you put your fist between the skin and the meat,” he says. It’s difficult and painful work. “Normally for people performing this job, every knuckle will be broken, bleeding.” Tearing off the skin isn’t much better. “To separate the skin, you use bare hands. But there’s lots of thorns attached to the wool that stick into your hand. At one stage, I didn’t have nails on nine of my fingers.” Jie’s a small man, slim but wiry. “In the very beginning, I found out I’m actually the weakest one on my shop floor.” He credits his faith with getting him through the physical demands of the punch job. “After all these years, if God isn’t right next to me, standing by me, I probably can’t survive.”

Smoko is at 9am. It nominally goes for 30 minutes, but for some workers it’s shorter. Tommy, a Taiwanese backpacker, says people who work in the first stages of the processing can go to the lunchroom straight away. But if you’re in the later stages, you have to keep working until the chain is clear. “When you finish,” Tommy says, “you have to change your clothes, wash your apron, wait in line to use the microwave. And then they say, ‘Hey, you have to go back, we’re starting.’ But you only had five minutes.” Benson says that sometimes the machinery will break down, so the supervisor will send them out on smoko early, which pushes the next break back. Some workers say the lack of toilet breaks has led to urinary problems, including diagnoses of nephritis, cystitis and prostatitis.

By 9.30am Gabriel is back on a scissor lift, beside a dead cow hanging upside down. He puts his stainless-steel knife into the hide and starts twisting with his wrist to create a space, and then pulls the hide away from the body as the scissor lift descends. If the cows are small, he can process 60 to 70 cows every hour. But the bulls have thicker hides, and their muscle structure is firmer. The repetitive twisting motion makes injuries fairly common. “During wintertime, the pain is quite severe,” Gabriel says. “Even holding chopsticks or closing my fist, I have trouble.” Despite the pain, he is reluctant to complain to management. He’s seen other workers make injury complaints, only to be told that any injuries were their own fault.

Luke’s workshop processes both lambs and calves. Two workers gut the animals, removing the stomach, kidney and liver. Another worker saws. And then another two workers pluck the heart and the lungs. Luke stands at a platform with another worker, side by side. “Every four to five seconds, there will be a lamb passing by,” he says. “About a dozen a minute. I take out the heart and the lung. Then I have to wash my hands, then wash the knife, then turn around and keep processing. Really fast. And every 30 seconds I have to sharpen the knife.” The sharpness of the knife is key, so much so that Luke brings his own steel rather than using the factory-issued one. He says, with a note of pride, that the work he and the others on 457 visas do requires more expertise than that usually performed by those on non-skilled visas. Once, when he was injured, he was assigned to hock cutting, a job normally reserved for backpackers. “I only need to take one look and I know how to do it.”

On the shop floor, you can tell someone’s visa status by glancing at their safety helmet. A sticker on the back displays the worker’s name. The stickers are different colours: yellow for the 457s, and red, green, orange and purple for backpackers and seasonal workers, corresponding to their labour hire contractor. For instance, the Fijian workers have purple stickers because they were hired through a particular Indian contractor. Workers with permanent residency, or local Australians, have white stickers. The system allows supervisors to chase up problems with the relevant labour hirer. But it also allows management to discriminate between workers. When production demands are low, they can pick out people on casual contracts and send them home.

The helmet system also makes it easy for supervisors to identify the Chinese on working visas. Shortly after he arrived in Australia, Jie says there was a labour shortage at the abattoir. He worked through both breaks, so he didn’t eat. During the last shift of the day, he started feeling ill, and asked the labour hire contractor on site if he could go home early. In the car park he got a call from the contractor: a supervisor had got wind that one of the 457s had gone. “The supervisor was saying, ‘Come back or I’ll send you back to China,’” Jie says. “He even said that we hire you 457s from overseas to do the dirtiest and hardest work.”

“We all experience lots of yelling and shouting,” Winnie says. “Once, the supervisor stopped the whole chain and then he just started yelling at me because I was too slow. I really felt like crying because everybody was watching. At the very beginning I thought about leaving. But then I changed my mind. I was like, there’s nothing I can do about it. Perhaps I’ll just work very hard.”

Gabriel feels the same way. He had one supervisor who would pull him down from the scissor lift and then start yelling. “Everybody in the workshop can hear this,” he says. “It’s not only physical, we’re also under lots of mental stress. But we are thinking that all we are after is the permanent residency here in Australia, so we have to suck it up.”

Lunchtime is at 12.30pm. Jie’s friend David, who works at an earlier stage of the process, is heating up both their lunches. He’s been doing that for two years now, and it’s the only way Jie can manage to have a hot lunch.

At 1pm, Eddie is in the boning room where sawed up sections of carcasses travel on hooks down the line. He cuts the meat off the bone. “You can’t stop,” he says, “or the meat will pile up on your table.” Sometimes, the chain will move slower, when more expensive meat is being processed. Then, Eddie takes a little more time to cut.

Rebecca, Tommy’s girlfriend, works as a packer in the boning room. “The meat is flowing like a river down the line,” Tommy says, “and the girls have to pack, pack, pack.”

“Not like a river – it’s like a wave,” Rebecca says. And the packers can’t always keep up. “They just hold the wave.” Pushing it back, trying to stop the meat from falling on the floor.

They’re not always successful. Pablo, an Argentinean backpacker who studied information technology back home before arriving in Australia on the eve of the pandemic to “experience new things”, is tasked with picking any dropped meat off the floor. If it’s busy, he might collect 150 cuts in a day, he says. He carries three at a time – about 15 kilograms – in one arm, with another 5 kilograms on a hook in his other hand. He has a steel workbench that he covers in plastic wrap. He puts the dropped meat on the plastic, good side down, and trims the contaminated side. When he started, he tried to trim as precisely as he could, to waste as little as possible. But the other workers told him there was no time for that.

Unlike on the kill floor, it’s cold in the boning room. Rebecca’s legs are freezing. “The environment is to protect the product,” she says, “not the worker.” Once, she passed out on the factory floor. “Working in Midfield, the damage to our body is long-term.”

Jie remembers clearly one incident when his index finger was too injured to do the punch job. Normally, in his workshop they rotate every 30 minutes between punching, tearing the skin and operating a machine. On this particular day, Jie volunteered to tear the skin for the whole shift, which meant giving up the easier machinery rotation. When a supervisor noticed, halfway through the shift, he started shouting. Over the years at Midfield, Jie has been a good worker. “They never targeted me. In fact, I try my best to perform.” But on this day, that service didn’t seem to matter. “After he did all the shouting, he turned around, and said, ‘Fucking lazy boy.’”

Karl moves the lamb through the freezer room to be packed. The carcasses are hung up, one by one, and he uses his body to push them. His day ends at 4pm – or it should. If the production schedule demands it, he might go until 4.30 or even 5pm. When he finally finishes, Karl repeats the morning’s routine in reverse. He washes off the blood from his apron and changes out of his uniform. “I go back home, I cook, I eat, I sleep.”

In 1883, a butcher named Khuda Bux was imprisoned for a week in Warrnambool, for refusing to work on the nearby Tooram estate – a dairy farm and piggery owned by Thomas McLeod Palmer. Bux had been brought over from India, along with hundreds more workers that decade, by a labour agent named James De Rinzy.

The Warrnambool Independent reported that Bux “professes to like the light employment and life in gaol, and says he would not mind being hung, but will not go back to the jungle work” at the farm. Soon after, a dozen more workers protested in the police yard, because Palmer had not paid and clothed them as agreed. A few days later, they abandoned the farm to protest again. De Rinzy rushed from Melbourne to solve the problem – it was a “misapprehension” about wages. Some signed new agreements, but others – including Bux – would return to India.

Only a few months earlier, Palmer had been acquitted of manslaughter for shooting one of the workers, Sirdar Khan, in the course of a dispute among the men. In the aftermath, the Warrnambool Standard called for a ban on non-European labour. Local historian Elizabeth O’Callaghan, who detailed these episodes in a booklet for the Warrnambool Historical Society, wrote that “the ‘Indian mutiny’ and the public uproar that followed echoed around the Western District”. She speculates that it “contributed in some small measure to the national debate which, in 1901, led to legislative action virtually prohibiting all non-European migration to Australia”: that is, the foundations for what would later become known as the White Australia policy.

Built for a settler colony, and buttressed by its discriminatory beginnings, Australia’s 20th century immigration policy was designed around residency. Migrants arrived with rights and obligations that compared with those afforded to citizens. At first they came mostly from the United Kingdom, then northern and southern Europe, and then, after the dismantling of the White Australia policy, parts of the Middle East and Asia.

The shift to a temporary migrant workforce began in the 1990s, as part of the Keating government’s push to open the economy to international competition. Commissioning the “Roach report”, the then minister for immigration and ethnic affairs, Nick Bolkus, told the Senate that the government’s objective was to put Australia in “a position to benefit”, and, to do so fully, there was a need to “ensure the smooth movement of key personnel into and out of this country”.

In 1996, the Howard government moved swiftly to implement the report’s recommendations. Its key change was the introduction of the 457 visa, providing workers up to four years’ sponsored employment. The scheme has been almost continuously amended ever since, until its replacement in 2018. The pro-migration industry body, Migration Council Australia, released a discussion paper in 2013 that, among other things, itemised the various reviews and reforms under both Liberal and Labor governments – it took 21 painstaking pages.

One landmark Senate inquiry, “A National Disgrace: The exploitation of temporary work visa holders”, was conducted in 2016 against the backdrop of media scandal. As the inquiry progressed, the ABC’s Four Corners released episodes on the exploitation of backpackers in meatworks and on farms, and later – together with Fairfax Media – on the systemic underpayment of international students by 7-Eleven outlets across the country. The same year, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection found that 42 per cent of temporary work sponsors were breaching their obligations.

In his testimony to the Senate inquiry, Joo-Cheong Tham, a professor of labour law at the University of Melbourne, argued that non-compliance with labour laws was not “an aberration where the culprits are so-called ‘rogue’ employers”. Instead, non-compliance is structural, caused by the precarious status of skilled visa workers: they have a limited right of residence, they’re excluded from the social safety net, and they must depend on an employer for permission to stay here, both in the short and long term. But sponsored workers aren’t the only ones at risk. Professor Tham described both the working holiday visa and international student programs as “de facto temporary labour schemes”.

In 2018, the 457 visa was finally scrapped by the Turnbull government and replaced with the Temporary Skill Shortage visa, subclass 482 (while existing 457s remained in force). It is similar, but tougher. The head of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezzullo, said the 457 had become “bloated” and “a proxy pathway to permanent residence”.

Federal and state inquiries have continued, unrelentingly. This year, government senators from the Joint Standing Committee on Migration recommended a series of changes to the skilled worker visa that would unwind the Turnbull reforms, expanding eligible occupations and creating pathways for permanent residency. Some states are forging ahead with reform: Queensland, South Australia and Victoria have now introduced compulsory licensing and regulation of labour hire agencies. The federal government has promised to establish a national licensing scheme, but has not yet done so.

The Fair Work Ombudsman reports that in 2019–20, migrant workers comprised 7 per cent of the workforce, but 44 per cent of the ombudsman’s new litigations. The Senate is once again investigating temporary migration. Its current inquiry started only three and a half years after “A National Disgrace” was released. The report is due in August.

It was Wednesday, December 16, 2020, about five in the morning, and Midfield’s employee car park was half full. People were making their way into the abattoir as on any other day – except for the Chinese 457s. They were staying in their cars, checking their messages. Winnie was one of these workers, refusing to enter the premises on safety grounds. She says she was hesitant, though she wasn’t worried about the consequences. “I just wanted to think things through. I didn’t want to feel like I’m being forced to take part.”

The previous evening, Winnie had been at home with her husband when the flurry of messages began. Benson was saying that a supervisor had punched him in the face after an argument over bringing in his own knife sharpener. Other workers responded, one after another: how can there be a physical assault at the workplace? Why didn’t the company send Benson to hospital? Why can’t we access the security footage? And why is Dean McKenna only listening to locals?

The conversation quickly moved on to doing something concrete with their anger. Winnie responded by urging calm, suggesting that they wait to get the full story. But when the workers held a vote over WeChat, the result was clear: the collective action was on.

“In the end I decided to go,” Winnie says. “Even if it’s not assault, Midfield should send the worker to the hospital. That’s the least thing that you can do.”

So, there she was, waiting in the pre-dawn chill with about 150 other Chinese workers. They thought McKenna would come out to discuss their concerns. But instead, their labour hire contractor Jack sent a message over WeChat: “if you guys aren’t coming in, I’m locking the gate”. About half an hour after clock-on time, that’s exactly what happened. No discussion – the gates were locked.

After that, matters escalated. The workers reconvened at the Warrnambool Botanic Gardens, where they met with local media and the Victorian secretary of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, who arrived from Melbourne. Now that they’d started, there didn’t seem to be a way back, Luke thought. “It’s quite obvious that we can’t go soft. You know the fruit, persimmon? There’s a phrase we use in Chinese, the soft persimmon is the easiest one to squeeze. You don’t want to be the soft one.”

Luke had doubts over Benson’s version of events. “Benson’s personality is a bit aggressive, a bit emotional. And the supervisor was the same, so we can imagine what’s going to happen with those two.” But there was a bigger picture. “Benson’s incident – perhaps it’s just a reflection. We can sense the tension already in the atmosphere. As soon as there’s a spark, then the fire.”

The tensions had been building steadily since March 2020. The initial group of Chinese workers – who arrived in 2016 – knew their visas were going to expire in April and May, four years after their arrival. By now, friends at other abattoirs had already received permanent residency, or at least their employers had lodged applications. Meanwhile, at Midfield, there was nothing. In response to the workers’ questions, the company said the best option was to apply for the new 408 visa, an emergency measure to allow critical workers to stay for an extra 12 months in light of pandemic travel restrictions. That only inflamed the workers’ suspicions. Was the company just trying to weasel a few more years’ work out of them?

Some workers decided to take their concerns directly to McKenna. They wrote their demands, in Mandarin, and set off for his office before the chain started for the day. They’d called in one of the labour hire contractors to translate. McKenna opened his door to find a score of Chinese faces. Jie remembers sensing some fear from him. Before the translator could say a word, McKenna started yelling. “Everyone was surprised,” Jie says. “We were trying to communicate with him. We didn’t expect that sort of reaction at all. He said we had two options, fuck back off to work, or fuck off back to China. Then he tore up our demands, right in front of us.”

That incident set a pattern. In November, the workers wrote McKenna another letter, this time in English. After expressing their appreciation for his bringing them to Australia, the letter explained they were planning to travel to Melbourne en masse to protest in front of the Home Affairs building. Ostensibly, it was a request for time off to petition the department about the delay in their permanent residency visas. McKenna thought otherwise. He met with five of the Chinese workers, along with Jack Zhao and a number of supervisors. The meeting began on a conciliatory note: the permanent residency issue was not the workers’ fault – there’d been a mix up with the Meat Industry Labour Agreement (under which Midfield had permission from Home Affairs to hire the workers), the workers were told, which meant the company couldn’t nominate them for permanent residency. But McKenna was working hard to fix the problem. “We are talking to the politicians every week,” he told them. “You are very important to us.”

The problem, McKenna said, was Home Affairs, which was dragging its feet, distracted by the pandemic. Still, he asked the workers to trust him: “I will look after people that look after us. That’s the way it works.” Which meant that the plan to petition in Melbourne was not only a non-starter, it was tantamount to going on strike. “If people walk off the chain, there’d be no discussion with me. I’ll ring the police. Out the gate. Shut the gate. Next phone call will be immigration department, schools, council, the whole lot. I will call ministers and say they’re not of good character, because Australia doesn’t want people like that. I don’t want people like that.”

Later that day, McKenna’s response was reiterated to the wider Chinese worker group by Jack Zhao via WeChat. The workers’ response was scathing: “Dean’s attitude sucks! We work so hard for years and years.” … “He is always full of energy when threatening workers.” … “Four years! What the fuck!”

It appeared to Jie that the Midfield boss had decided to play hardball. On the day the workers had waited in vain for McKenna to come out and speak with them in the car park, and then later gathered in the botanical gardens, they received a letter from him in the evening claiming their refusal to work was an unprotected industrial action, and formally directing them to attend work the next morning. The meatworkers union advised that Midfield might have grounds for action if they didn’t comply. They decided to get back on the chain and turned up for work on Thursday as usual. But they only got as far as the lunchroom, where McKenna gave a speech.

“No work,” he said. “There’s no work. At all. Understand me very clear. Benson assaulted a supervisor. Supervisor defended himself as anybody is entitled to. Benson came off second best.”

Rachel, a labour hire contractor working alongside Zhao, was trying to translate the address into -Mandarin, but McKenna rushed on ahead of her. “The lies and bullshit that got put on social media and in the media yesterday about Midfield, is absolute fucking rubbish,” he said. “To say that we’re racist – bullshit. To say that we don’t support you – bullshit. During coronavirus, we were not obliged to pay one person. Everybody got paid when we shut down. We talk to the schools to get your children into schools, because they didn’t want them. Who did that? My wife. She got them into the schools … We feed you, on a Friday a month. The canteen loses money to subsidise your food. We do that for you.”

By now the Chinese workers were confused – McKenna was no longer pausing for Rachel to translate at all. What was he saying? Was there work on today, or not? McKenna continued: “I have contacted the government – all discussions about visas are off. All discussion. I personally rang the immigration minister yesterday. So, you work it out.

“And if you could please get off site. You’re not welcome here.”

Later that afternoon, the Victorian Trades Hall Council released a recording of McKenna’s speech made on someone’s phone. “We spotted the Facebook translation,” Jie says, “and we realised, oh, that was what he was talking about.” Even then, Jie was unfazed. True, McKenna had said visa discussions were off. And with two kids in the local primary school, Jie had more to lose from returning to China than most. “My kids, they grow up here. They can’t read Chinese, they can’t write Chinese. There’s no way to head back now.”

But clearly something in the relationship with Midfield was broken. Within six days of the action, the meatworkers union had received 140 requests for join-up forms, some from workers who said they hadn’t realised they had the right to join a union.

“It has been so many years he was using permanent residency to threaten us,” Jie says. “And we were quite terrified to do something wrong. But since then, we know the truth.”

Dean McKenna saw things differently to his Chinese workforce. He decided to close the door on the workers, rather than accept their demand to sack the supervisor. “There was a potential for deadset anarchy right through the workplace,” he says.

McKenna claims the recording released to the public was only part of what happened. Earlier, he says, a worker had warned him, in English, about their need for permanent residency. “They said: ‘If we can’t hold a gun to the government’s head, we’ll hold it to yours.’

“That’s what got me burned up, because we were trying to do everything in our power for them,” McKenna says. “In the context of things, I probably overreacted. But it was tense times.”

The younger McKenna hasn’t always worked in the family business. When he was 19, he split town for Canada, and worked in construction for a summer. The labouring dried up when the weather got cold, so he went straight to the nearest abattoir. “From a very young age I learnt you can get a job anywhere in the world if you are prepared to work,” he says. Later, he worked for years as a helicopter pilot, mustering cattle, but he’s been the general manager of the family’s abattoir for the best part of a decade now. Finding workers is the biggest challenge for the business.

Everyone is paid above award wages, he says. A beef boner can earn $75,000 per year, but it’s fast, highly skilled, precision work, starting very early in the morning. “It’s repetitive, day after day after day. And the Aussies, there’s enough choices out there that they don’t have to do it, and nor do they want to do it.”

It wasn’t always that way. In 1995, only seven years after Colin McKenna bought the meatworks, a profile in the Australian Financial Review – “Abattoir revived by the personal touch” – lauded the expansion of the meatworks under his ownership, as well as the good conditions for workers. It described a fully unionised workforce, with permanent jobs, eight-hour days and above-award wages. Colin explained: “There’s no such thing here as a short week or itinerant labour. We’re a small town here and our people have been with us a long time. We get a lot out of them by pulling together.”

But by 1999, the story had changed: the AFR noted that more Victorian abattoirs were bypassing the meatworkers union in favour of flexible workplace -agreements. Midfield was among those that had “slipped the net”.

The union’s national secretary, Graham Smith, began work at Metro Meat Noarlunga, south of Adelaide, in 1976. It was the flagship site of a privately owned export abattoir group. It was hard work, but the pay was good, and everyone had a laugh, he says. Best of all, you’d be home within eight and a half hours at worst. It was a tally system, with a target for the day’s kill. “We knew that as quick as we could get that done everyone could just clean up and go,” Smith says. “So, do you think everyone worked together to get them done? My word they did.”

In 1998, a Productivity Commission report on work arrangements in the industry described the typical employee as “a young male, with low educational attainment, and a union member”. It made no mention of migrant workers. But after the Liberal government relaxed the rules for 457 eligibility in 2001, processors sought boners, slicers and slaughtermen from South America. By 2005, with the mining boom at full tilt, meatworkers were coming in from Brazil, China, the Philippines, the UK and Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the old tally system had been broken down. Smith describes it as the “salami tactic” in enterprise bargaining: conditions declined slice by slice. The working day lengthened, pay fell relative to other jobs. Tasks were simplified and productivity increased. Central Queensland University industrial relations academic Gordon Stewart described it in the Australian Bulletin of Labour: “‘One man, one carcass’ had been superseded by ‘one man, one cut’. This was a veritable Taylorist disassembly line, with all the industrial relations problems associated with such production systems built into its design.”

Union membership has declined, Smith admits. “We’ve just been unable to organise migrant workers in the same fashion as a fixed and local workforce, which of course was the entire thrust of the operation by the employers.

“The first thing these companies will say to you is, ‘Oh, the Australians don’t want to work.’ They forget a couple of keywords in that sentence. Australians want to work, they just don’t want to work for them. Because it’s bad hours, bad pay, and it’s no fun at all.”

McKenna acknowledges that it’s hard work, and that the speed of the chain at Midfield is faster than it once was. But the chain is also larger, he says, with more workers rotating through lighter processes, to make sure they use different muscles throughout a shift. There are up to five million separate cuts in the abattoir every day. Midfield’s attendance rate is very high, and its injury rate is below the industry average. He rejects workers’ claims about poor conditions and mistreatment.

McKenna says the solution is not as easy as shortening hours and increasing the pay to attract local workers. The company exports 90 per cent of its product. “We compete in a global market with Brazil, the US and parts of Europe that have a much, much lower cost of production. The margins are very fine. If we increase the pay and lower the hours, we turn the lights off.”

The site is currently running at 60 per cent of capacity; worker numbers fell because of the COVID-19 capacity restrictions last year. Roughly three in five employees are migrants – a mix of sponsored visa holders and their partners, as well as backpackers, temporary protection visa holders and participants in the Pacific Labour Scheme.

Years ago, McKenna flew to the Philippines to try to recruit workers himself, but he didn’t trust what he was hearing in the interviews. “It was above our heads,” he says. “We buy livestock and sell meat – we didn’t have the skillset to be in faraway places recruiting workers. All of a sudden, we’re dealing with government departments and migrant labour and all this. Different customs and cultures.”

So, when labour hire agencies promised to handle everything, McKenna thought: “Oh geez, how easy is this? Better off just to pay these guys to recruit them.” As well as finding workers, Jack Zhao’s employer Scott Shi also offered to assist with getting an export licence for China – and that was attractive for Midfield. “It was one call, get it all – he was obviously a very influential person.”

But at the time Jie, Luke, Winnie, Gabriel, Eddie, Karl and the others came to Australia with their families, the authorities were already investigating Scott Shi. In July 2015, the ATO Trusts Taskforce had begun an intense covert audit of his labour hire group. In fact, Shi had long been known to authorities. As early as 2009, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Department of Immigration was investigating him for producing false work documents, withholding passports and underpaying workers, after it raided a series of meatworks. In a separate case, the Fair Work Ombudsman began investigating Shi in early 2013 for underpaying Chinese migrant workers, for which he was eventually fined $43,000 by the Federal Circuit Court.

Going back many years, Midfield had paid three companies in the Scott Shi group for the supply of labour, but each one had successively been placed into liquidation and then deregistered. The fourth was called Newing Glacier; the workers called it “NG” for short, or “No Good”. The tax office found that over two financial years from July 2015 on, Newing Glacier had underpaid its tax bill by more than $5.5 million.

The Federal Court appointed liquidators and ordered that Shi’s assets be seized. Bank statements show that by then more than $2 million in cash had been withdrawn from company accounts at ATMs over a six-year period, mostly at or near Sydney’s Star City Casino, where Shi was a diamond member and regular gambler. The tax office estimates that more than $43 million was remitted overseas in the same period. Industry figures suggest he remains in Sydney, operating as the shadow director behind several labour hire agencies that continue to supply workers to processors.

Newing Glacier was placed under administration. Zhao was now hired directly by Midfield; he already worked from an office inside the abattoir, and he stayed there. Whatever the paperwork said, he and the other labour hire contractors remained de facto supervisors, simply on the basis of their speaking Mandarin. As far as the workers could tell, nothing changed. Whomever they dealt with, they were working down the days until permanent residency.

Not long after the Benson incident and the strike, Midfield management organised a barbecue during smoko. The workers had to line up to get sausages in white bread. Managers were taking photos, Jie remembers. “A supervisor was serving us: ‘Oh you’re 457 – is one sausage enough? Do you want more?’”

Jie chose not to eat, because he really doesn’t like sausages; few of the Chinese workers do. After the photo shoot was done and the supervisors left, some workers expressed mixed feelings. “They were looking at the sausages and it’s… a bad feeling, like, ‘Should I still have it or not?’ … It’s like what he said in the recording: ‘I feed you.’”

Jie thinks the collective action was a failure. “In the end I feel like Dean won. He beat us.”

The scenario doesn’t look like a triumph for Midfield. The company’s previous Meat Industry Labour Agreement, under which it had permission to hire the workers, expired on December 16, 2020, the day of the collective action. So far, the Department of Home Affairs has refused to renew it, or approve any permanent residency visas for the workers. Instead, according to McKenna, it advised the company to recommend workers sign up for a visa under a Designated Area Migration Agreement. DAMAs allow employers in specific regions to hire migrant workers. Under the agreement for Victoria’s Great South Coast region, just 100 of these visas are available each year, divided among six council areas. The Chinese 457 workers at Midfield would have to serve another three years under the DAMA before they would even be eligible to be sponsored for residency – their four-plus years served on the 457 visa would count for nothing.

More than a third of Midfield’s Chinese 457 workers have left since last year’s events. “I can understand why they wouldn’t trust us,” McKenna says. “It’s a mess, that’s all I can say. It’s a mess. It’s knocked the wind out of our sail. I genuinely feel for the people. But we can’t do nothing about it.” And now, thanks to the pandemic, even backpackers are proving difficult to source. The time when Midfield could pick workers from a daily line-up is gone. And the company never secured an export licence for China.

Midfield is not the only one complaining. In March, managers from two other meat processors testified before the Senate inquiry that the renewal of their labour agreements had been delayed by the department, that they hadn’t been able to sponsor their current workers for permanent residency, and that the department had failed to communicate with them. “We need to get a solution,” said Donna Fuller, from EC Throsby. “We don’t have any idea where we are at.” Glenn Southward, from HW Greenham & Sons, said the Pacific Labour Scheme – a three-year visa for workers from nine Pacific Island countries and East Timor – is now the only viable means of planning a workforce. When Midfield used the program to hire workers from East Timor, the process was all set up for them – they hired 25 workers from 60 interviews, out of a thousand applications. The PLS is part of Australia’s aid program, and is overseen by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade rather than Home Affairs. PLS workers have no pathway to permanency – at the end of the visa, they cannot apply for residency. Yet the testimony from processors was unequivocal: the employers want a permanent workforce.

Even the McKennas’ connections with the Liberal Party have come to nothing. “The government was just stalling and stalling. And they still are,” Dean McKenna says. “We offered the DAMA straight to the people, and honestly, that’s when things started to get hostile around here.” He argues the whole system needs an overhaul, away from the “churn and burn” of short-term visas and towards long-term or repeat employment that would allow time for skilled workers to move into supervisory roles. But he also suspects that the company’s former connection with Scott Shi is to blame for the departmental delays.

McKenna’s attempt to shift the blame to Shi glosses over their long association. In May, Australian Border Force officials interviewed Midfield workers as part of an audit into the company’s fitness to hold its labour agreement. A spokesperson for the ABF said that if a company is found to be misusing or exploiting the immigration system, its applications for agreements may be significantly delayed or declined.

The audit was a response to the media reports about Benson’s fight and its aftermath in December. Yet the government knew for more than a decade about Shi and the abattoirs that relied upon him. A finding against Midfield would be a blow for the McKennas, but it does little to address the basic equation: Australia wants to be a meat-exporting country, competing in a global market in which the industry claims the local workforce is not competitive. If we allow foreign workers to come, how are we to mitigate their exploitation? It’s by no means a simple problem. But here is the wrong answer: leave recruitment to shadowy private companies, and indenture workers to a single employer whose own bad behaviour can scupper the workers’ hopes for residency.

Gabriel is in a bind. He can put his trust in the McKennas, hoping that under a new Meat Industry Labour Agreement the permanent-residency sponsorship places will materialise, or that Midfield will eventually honour the residency deal after a DAMA is fulfilled. But he knows his time is running out. “If we continue working for Midfield for another three to five years, it will definitely ruin our body,” he says. The same applies should he work instead for other abattoirs – if he switches employer, the qualifying period for sponsorship starts all over again.

Nonetheless, some people have tried to get jobs elsewhere. But the pressure of working while secretly trying to move to another abattoir has been too much. After Border Force showed up onsite at Midfield, some workers suspected that the authorities had been tipped off by media covering the December action. Their fear had completely dissolved the waning collective energy that had surged throughout last year. In any case, the visa impasse means that further confrontations with Midfield, even with union support, would have limited effect. In the absence of a Meat Industry Labour Agreement, they can’t force Midfield to give what it doesn’t have. Instead, the union has been lobbying Labor senators, including Kim Carr, to take up individual cases with Home Affairs.

Luke has been suffering from insomnia. One day, it turned into a crisis. “I was using a knife to cut the lamb’s lungs,” he says. “An impulsive thing was happening – this feeling was accumulating. I felt like trying to stab somebody.” He knew he needed to leave. “I drove a big distance and then I was just sitting in the car. Later on, I realised my wife had been texting. The labour hire had told her that I’d gone. When I did get home, she was just saying some nice words and trying to calm me down. I didn’t feel like saying much about it, but I did feel a bit better.”

Benson was fired shortly after his altercation with the supervisor. Following the union’s intervention, he reached a settlement with Midfield and then returned to China. He says he has tried contacting the broker to get his recruitment fee back, but no one answers the phone. Jack Zhao has left Midfield too, and now posts job ads as “Sydney Jack” for a pork factory in New South Wales. McKenna says Midfield “parted company” with Zhao to rid itself of any further association with the Shi syndicate: “We felt that Scott was still here.” Zhao did not respond to requests for an interview.

Winnie and Jie have gone too. Winnie quit Midfield early this year. “After the strike, the way the managers and the supervisors look at us, it’s like we are the troublemakers,” she says. She started an online English course, and, more recently, moved interstate with her husband. Even now, her fingers still give her trouble.

Jie moved with his family to another regional meatworks to start the sponsorship process all over again. But he and his wife no longer believe the government will give the Chinese workers permanent residency. They expect to return to China, despite their worries about their children. At least, he says, the work is better at the abattoir where he is now. “Maybe the chain goes faster than Midfield, but in here, I never heard any words like fuck or shit. We don’t care whether we are tired or not. But I want to be respected.”

Meanwhile, ads continue to appear in Mandarin on backpacker websites and Facebook pages for jobs at Midfield. The ads list a range of bonuses: $2000 in relocation assistance from the government, two weeks’ free accommodation, $1000 cash bonus. They’re looking for knife hands, packers, boners, slicers. The requirements are minimal: a valid visa holder with full-time work rights, physically fit, no experience needed. Or, as Rebecca puts it, “If you’ve got hands, if you’ve got feet, you can work for them.”

André Dao, Michael Green and Sherry Huang

André Dao is the author of Anam, which won the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Michael Green is a Walkley Award–winning journalist and the host of The Messenger podcast about immigration detention on Manus Island. Sherry Huang is a sociologist, community organiser at the Migrant Workers Centre and co-founder of United Working Holiday Youth.


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