Our Meat Market for Workers: How Coles And Woolworths Benefit From Worker Exploitation

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The racism and sexism in the job advertisement is clear: “Require Male… not white job”. This ad for workers at one of Baiada’s poultry processing facilities articulates the deliberate yet casual discrimination that is inherent within a zero-hour labour market, as employers target the most vulnerable sections of our community as a source of labour.

This discrimination is something experienced by many working in the supermarket and fast food supply-chain, and is something that has been exposed with the release of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s investigation into Baiada’s web of labour contracting.

Baiada – one of the biggest poultry companies in the country – did not place the discriminatory advertisement and others like it themselves. Rather, one among many of Baiada’s unscrupulous, unregulated labour hire companies did. This is but one example of dodgy dealing by labour hire contractors on Baiada’s premises detailed in the FWO’s report.

“Zero-hours” contracts and dodgy labour hire companies in our food supply-chain are rampant.

Labour hire companies are entities whose primary source of revenue rests in providing workers to other businesses. They can provide a legal barrier between a worker and a corporation who benefits from that worker’s labour.

Dodgy labour hire contractors can often go hand-in-hand with chronic underpayments, horribly long shifts, mistreatment and nefarious arrangements that see contractors force workers to pay them fees for over-priced accommodation, reaping enormous profits in the process.

The FWO’s report reveals that “workers advised they were informed by their recruiters that they would not get work unless they rented accommodation from the contractor” and that “based on 20 people paying $100.00 per week, the potential rental income for this property is over $100,000 a year”.

Other workers reported living 30 to a house with only one bathroom.

Labour hire contractors forcing workers to live with 29 other people in a regular suburban home is not the sort of behaviour we should accept in Australia. And by the International Labour Organisation’s measures, making workers live in particular housing, as a condition of employment, is an indicator of forced labour.

What once was genuinely seasonal casual work is now a way of life for millions of workers in Australia – it is estimated that 40 per cent of all those in the workforce are currently employed on zero-hours contracts.

And part of the growth in this figure has been the increasing dependence large corporations like Baiada have on labour hire firms to shift away the responsibility they have to employees.

In Australia, if you want to trade in liquor, you need a licence. However, if you want to trade in human bodies there are no such requirements. You just need a laptop and a mobile phone. If your business gets caught, you phoenix it. In other words, you burn one business along with its legal and social responsibilities, and replace it with another identical business.

This is an example of Australia becoming a toll-booth economy where corporations who occupy positions of privilege are able to charge whatever they like, and ordinary people are forced to pay it.

As the FWO reports, “intensive discounting undertaken by the major supermarkets is reported to have placed downward pressure on profit margins in the industry, which has led to diminished profits at the processing level”.

In other words, in their bid to be the biggest corporation and possess the most market power, Woolworths’ and Coles’ competitive push for low prices and a larger share of the spend means that workers down the supply-chain must bear the cost. Someone always has to pay.

Race and immigration are themes in the FWO report. There is a view among labour hire contractors that it is easier to take advantage of workers on temporary work visas, and those who have English as a second language.

But this is not the whole issue at all. The issue is not race or one of visas, but whether corporations are required to be responsible for the people from whom they profit.

To talk only about race and immigration – which has been the temptation of some in the past – is to obscure a reality where the moral responsibility the big supermarkets have to their workers in the supply chain is not met with a legal responsibility. Through not focusing on the corporations, we let them off the hook.

The FWO has done a lot of good work to expose deep problems in the labour market. The FWO’s investigation, undertaken with multi-lingual investigators, has diligently drawn out a criminal web in our food supply-chain.

And the excellent work of Labor Senator Sue Lines, who has been chairing an inquiry into temporary work visas, has also had impact, as the big corporations have been asked important questions about how they treat their workforce at all levels of the supply-chain.

There are limits, though, to what one agency or one inquiry can achieve on their own. This goes beyond one bad apple, the whole barrel is tainted. We need to organise around this issue and build people power to solve it.

We can only fix the system if we stand together to demand that major supermarkets and retailers fix up their supply chain. We are campaigning for change and ethical sourcing for fresh food.

We want the big supermarkets to sit down with workers, and the union, and sign an agreement that guarantees a fair supply chain for fresh food.

Thousands of people have already signed a petition demanding this. We’ve met with Coles, Woolworths has refused, and we’re keeping up the fight here.

We urge you to join us.

* Godfrey Moase is the Assistant General Branch Secretary of the National Union of Workers.

New Matilda

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