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The exploitation of Australia’s forgotten workers

Australia’s meat processing industry is one of many that relies heavily on migrant workers, to do jobs that Australian residents often aren’t willing to do. Many of those workers are promised that hard work will lead to permanent residency in Australia.

Australia’s meat processing industry is one of many that relies heavily on migrant workers, to do jobs that Australian residents often aren’t willing to do. 

Many of those migrant workers come from China, with the promise that hard work will lead to permanent residency in Australia. But for some that promise is never delivered on.

Today, writer for The Monthly André Dao on how Australia’s immigration system exploits the hopes and hard labour of migrant workers. 

 

Guest: Writers for The Monthly André Dao, Michael Green and Sherry Huang.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.  

 

Australia’s meat processing industry is one of many that relies heavily on migrant workers to do jobs that Australian residents often aren’t willing to do. 

 

Many of those migrant workers come from China, with the promise that hard work will lead to permanent residency in Australia. 

 

But for some, that promise is never delivered on.

 

Today, Andre Dao on how Australia’s immigration system exploits the hopes and hard labour of migrant workers. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Andre, could you start by telling me a bit about the abattoir you’ve been visiting, Midfield? 

 

ANDRE: 

Yes, Midfield is a large abattoir in Warrnambool, which is in the south west of Victoria. It's the biggest private employer in Warrnambool, in the region, really. And so, a lot of the kind of economic and civic life of the town is based around this abattoir. 

 

RUBY:

Andre Dao wrote about the plight of migrant workers in the latest issue of *The Monthly*, along with co-writers Michael Green and Sherry Huang.

 

ANDRE: 

Now we have been following this story for quite a while. The first people that we spoke to who worked in this abattoir, we spoke to them before the pandemic, but it's taken sort of that long to really build trust with these workers. 

 

It's been quite difficult because they have a real sense that they could be punished by their employer or they're also very worried about their visa status. But over time, we did manage to speak to a group of Chinese workers at this abattoir.  

 

Archival Tape -- Andre Dao: 

“So I haven't been to Warrnambool since I was four or five.”

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang:

“Really?”

 

Archival Tape -- Andre Dao:

“Yeah. When were you last year, Sherry?”

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang: 

“Last year.” 

 

ANDRE: 

So I worked with Michael Green and Sherry Huang, we started speaking to more and more of these Chinese workers, with Sherry and Michael and I, and finally we decided that we would drive down to Warrnambool to meet them in person.

 

Archival Tape -- Andre Dao: 

“So how many interviews have we got lined up today? I think you said it's up to five now?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Michael Green: 

“Sherry's counting here.” 

 

ANDRE: 

But even once we had met them in person, these workers were so afraid of speaking out, they were so afraid of either losing their jobs or their visas that, you know, they wanted to be anonymous. 

 

Even to the extent of having their voices on tape was a concern for them. So, you know, we had Sherry translating for us down there in Warrnambool. 

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang: 

“Yep all good. So this is Andre, that’s Michael. [Sherry speaking in Mandarin] We’re all in that WeChat group.”

 

RUBY:

Right, ok. And so when these workers began to trust you, what did they say to you about the work they’ve been doing, at the abattoir? What is a day's work like there?

 

ANDRE: 

So it's extremely repetitive work and it's extremely fast. I think those are the two things that really came out of our interviews with workers. In the past, there used to be this idea that you had one man, one carcass, and so you had one worker working on a full animal. And now they say it's one man, one cut. 

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating):

“...three to four second, is a one lamb passing through me....” 

 

ANDRE: 

And so, you know, in Warrnambool where we were following this story, there's up to five million separate cuts a day. And I think it gives you a sense of just how broken up the process is.

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating):

“When a lamb arrive in front of me. And then, so I have to take off the heart and lung.” 

 

ANDRE: 

For instance, there was one worker who described working on lamb, and he's plucking heart and lung out of the carcass. 

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating):

“and then turn around, and then keep processing. So about three or four seconds. Very fast. Wow.” 

 

ANDRE: 

And he said that, you know, the lamb would come at him at about one every four to five seconds. 

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating):

“So I have to wash my hand and then wash the knife and then put into sanitizing” 

 

ANDRE: 

And in that time, he has to pluck out the heart and the lung, turn around, sterilise his knife, pick up a new knife, sharpen it and turn back around to the chain. And then there's another one coming at him. There's just this sense of, you know, there's just this constant wave of meat coming at you.

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating):

“So one minute I have to process about a dozen… every 30 seconds I have to sharpen.” 

 

ANDRE: 

The things that stayed with me from our conversations with workers was the sense of just how willing they were to do the work and to suffer the injuries that they did without complaining. 

 

RUBY:

Mm and so these workers - they’re migrant workers, as you’ve said. And so is the reason that they will continue to work in these kinds of conditions - is that because they feel that they have to, because of their visa?

 

ANDRE: 

Yes, so when a worker comes over on a 457 visa, they're essentially tied to one employer and they have to do at least three years with that employer. And then, the normal course of things is the employer is supposed to sponsor them for a visa with permanent residency.

 

And so you have to work for that employer. And if they terminate your employment, your residency rights are also terminated. While you're at it the workers all said, you know, we have to suck it up, so we have to suck up the racism at work. We have to suck up the injuries. You just have to deal with it because they had this real sense that they had no real rights here. 

 

Archival Tape --  Sherry Huang (translating):

“So we were quite anxious during that time because the second group, the visa, is about to expire. So the first group and second group” 

 

ANDRE: 

But for this cohort of workers who arrived in the middle of 2016, they were coming to the very end of their 457 visas. And when they asked about, you know, what's happening with our permanent residency applications, they were told ‘Oh, there's been some kind of delay’   

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating):

“Then we start talking about perhaps Midfield is stalling the process, we don’t know exactly what happened we just have our suspicions.”

 

ANDRE: 

And that was sort of the first inkling that these workers had that maybe the promise that they'd been given wasn't actually going to become a reality. 

RUBY:

So we're talking about a group of people who've come to Australia. They've been told that they will be able to get permanent residency and they've taken on this very difficult, gruelling work in order to get that. And then after doing that for several years, have found out that actually, maybe they won't be able to stay in Australia. 

 

ANDRE: 

Yeah, exactly. 

 

So once they found out that ok, this promise isn't maybe isn't what we thought it was. Then they started to take their complaints to the owners. And so particularly to Dean McKenna, who is the general manager at Midfield. 

 

Archival Tape -- Dean McKenna:

“To say that we’re racist. Bullshit. To say that we don’t support you. Bullshit.”

 

ANDRE: 

And that set off sort of a chain of confrontations between the workers and the abattoir.

 

Archival Tape -- Dean McKenna:

“The lies that someone or some people in this room put on social media, to the TV, and to the newspapers is a disgrace. All lies. Until that is corrected in the media, I will not talk to you. Nobody at Midfield will talk to you at all...”

 

ANDRE: 

The workers would try and make demands about their visa and then be met with quite an aggressive response. 

 

Archival Tape -- Dean McKenna:

“I contacted the government. All discussion about visa is off. All discussion. I personally rang, rang the ah, Immigration Minister yesterday. So you work it out.”

 

ANDRE: 

And so that sort of set the tone for most of last year, the first sort of a series of escalating confrontations. 

 

Archival Tape -- Dean McKenna:

“Until it's corrected in the media. No discussion. Sick of this shit.”

 

RUBY:

Midfield’s general manager Dean McKenna denies claims from workers of poor conditions and mistreatment, and says that visa issues are the responsibility of the federal government.

 

Coming up next, we explore the role the federal government does play in determining the conditions and the future for these workers.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

RUBY:

Andre, we’ve been talking about the migrant workers who take on jobs in Australia that Australian residents often don’t want to do. They do it because they’re told it's a pathway to permanent residency. But, as you’ve been saying, that doesn't always materialise. So who is responsible here for that promise being broken? 

 

ANDRE: 

I think the responsibility is threefold. So it's absolutely Midfield as the employer is responsible for bringing out these workers, for continually making the promise to these workers throughout their employment that they're going to get permanent residency and very often holding that over their heads as they work; of saying ‘keep working for us, otherwise you're putting your permanent residency at risk’. 

 

But the labour hire agents equally, who recruit them in China, who bring them over here, they again bear a responsibility for making the promise.  We have been told that different workers have paid up to $70,000 Australian as a recruitment fee just to come over and that’s about the one year wage of working at the abattoir. That gives a particular idea of just also how tied they are to not only the employer because of their visa conditions, but also they have this debt to a recruiter as well. 

 

But then I think the ultimate responsibility does lie with the government for creating this system where they know that abattoirs are unable to get Australian workers, and those abattoir owners are constantly asking the government for more permanent resident workers and for its own reasons. And it's unclear to us whether that's out of malice or incompetence or indifference. But the government doesn't seem to even listen to the abattoir owners who are kind of natural friends of theirs in lots of ways. The government doesn't listen to those appeals. And so instead, it lets this sort of situation fester the government allows those workers to come over and be tied to a single employer, knowing how vulnerable that makes those workers. And really, it only seems to try and clean up the mess afterwards. If, you know, the media, report on particularly egregious cases like this one, they might look into an employer. But more broadly, they’re seemingly happy to let the system stand. 

 

RUBY:

And so where are things at then for the workers that you've been speaking to in terms of their employment and their ability to stay in Australia? 

 

ANDRE: 

Yeah, so actually now at least a third of the Chinese workers at Midfield have left, either for other abattoirs, and some have actually gone back to China. So one of the people we spoke to is Jie. It's not his real name. He really wanted to come over to Australia for his children to go through the Australian education system. 

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating): 

“So there's less pressure here in Australia. And then for kids, that and the education system is much better here compared to China.”

 

ANDRE: 

And he was extremely worried about the prospect of going back to China, because his kids just haven't got sufficient Chinese to be able to go back and do well in that system over there. 

 

Archival Tape -- Andre Dao: 

“What do you hope and imagine for your children? Do you hope that they kind of become Australians?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating): 

“So not so much about Australian, but perhaps as a PR at most of workers was thinking, well, get the children, have a PR and then perhaps in the future, while they grow up, they can still go back to China.” 

 

ANDRE: 

But now you know, just recently he's decided that, in fact, he will go back because he can't face this uncertainty anymore. 

 

RUBY:

Andre, you’ve been working on this story for months. And I just wonder what your thoughts are on the way the Australian immigration system treats these migrant workers. Because it sounds like the people that you’ve been speaking to have been worn down by the uncertainty of their situation. 

 

ANDRE: 

And so we heard kind of over and over again from the workers that they felt as if they were being used up by this work, that their bodies were being used up by this work. And that was, kind of echoed by an Australian industry insider who said to us, you know, this trade is all about muscle, meat and bone; whether it's animal or human. And so I think clearly from the way that this saga has played out, what we seem to be allowing to happen here is, you know, for these foreign workers to come in to use up their bodies, for this work that Australians aren't willing to do and then, to not even meet the promise that's been made to them. 

 

On the other side of things, I thought it was, you know, it's very interesting to see the way that the workers in some of their appeals to the abattoir made a slideshow for the owners in which they really highlighted their place in Warrnambool. 

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating): 

“They like the playground here. So we took them or take them to the playground and sometimes to the beach, sometimes to the pool, because they love waters.”

 

ANDRE: 

So the workers shared with the owners, the pictures of their kids going to the local schools, them going to local churches, organising community events. And they really emphasise to us, as well as interviews, how much they love living in Warrnambool, going to the beach and going fishing. 

 

Archival Tape -- Sherry Huang (translating): 

“Yeah, lots of beaches, like not only in Warrnambool, but also in Port Fairy.”

 

ANDRE: 

They had a sense that doesn't that time here count for something? These three, four years. Some of them have had children born here as well. And so their sense of it is: we've put in this work, both in the abattoir but also within the community. Does that count for something? And it seems as if at least currently the answer is no, it doesn't.

 

##RUBY:

Andre, thank you so much for your time. 

 

ANDRE: 

Thanks for having me. 

 

RUBY:

You can read the full piece by Andre Dao, Michael Green and Sherry Huang, titled ‘On the Chain’ in the latest issue of The Monthly

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today -

 

Queensland's Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young has announced that she does not want under-40s to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing health risks.

 

Her statements come after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced anyone of any age could ask their doctor for an AstraZeneca vaccine, as long as they were aware of the risks.

 

And an extreme heatwave in Canada and the north-western United States has caused over one hundred deaths, after the region experienced consecutive days of record breaking temperatures. 

 

Since Friday at least 134 people have died suddenly in the Vancouver area of Canada alone, with health officials linking the deaths to the extreme heatwave. 

 

The record temperatures of up to 49.5 degrees are attributed to climate change. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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