Baiada Poultry workers in Melbourne have won a major victory for fair pay and job security after 13 days on strike. These 300 mostly migrant workers stuck together in the face of harassment and intimidation from their bosses, the media and police to humble a major corporation through indefinite strike action.
Hundreds of supporters joined the 24-hour picket line set up by the workers, members of the National Union of Workers (NUW), outside their factory at Laverton North in Melbourne.
Management at Baiada had been moving to casualise its low-paid, mostly migrant workforce, shifting employees onto insecure contracts and cash-in-hand work.
Forty per cent of the current workforce are paid either cash-in-hand as contractors or employed as casuals through labour hire firms. Cash-in-hand workers have been paid as little as $8 an hour, according to signed statements by current and former workers.
Jersey, one of the striking workers, told Solidarity, “They force us to work public holidays, with no holiday pay. They sacked 60 permanent people and replaced them with cash in hand workers [on] $10 an hour!”
But they have now won equal pay rates for casuals and contractors and the right for casuals to convert to permanent positions after six months, as well as a 4 per cent pay rise for both of the next two years. Their redundancy pay will also double to a maximum of 42 weeks and there will be increased union and delegate rights.
Baiada workers in Adelaide refused to unload chicken from Melbourne—and were sacked by the company. But they have now won reinstatement.
The workers who went on strike have shown how major companies and their multi-million dollar profits can be brought to heel. Baiada controls 35 per cent of the poultry market nationwide, supplying well-known brands like Lilydale and Steggles to Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and KFC. The company is owned by the Baiada family, whose wealth was estimated at $495 million by BRW magazine earlier this year.
Baiada had a reputation as a vicious, bullying employer—which the workers tapped to win community support for the strike.
A Baiada delegate addressed workers at Sensis, who sent messages of support down the picket line and took a collection. Activists from Occupy Melbourne helped hold the picket line, and there were solidarity demonstrations inside Coles in Melbourne and Sydney.
Conditions at the factory are shocking and dangerous. Last year Sarel Singh, who was only 34, was decapitated while cleaning a fast-moving poultry machine. Not only were his workmates made to clean up his body, they were then forced to work overtime to make up for the time lost due to the accident.
A Worksafe Victoria report confirmed that Baiada Poultry had contravened the Occupational Health and Safety Act, operating the machine at top speed of 183 birds a minute.
Worker Phuoc Dang told The Age that management harassed her and repeatedly asked her to resign from the NUW. Crikey reported earlier this year that it was using US-style anti-union tactics, calling in “ringleaders” for one-on-one meetings and pressuring them to resign from the union.
Support from other workers and the wider community proved vital in holding off management attempts to violently break through the workers’ picket line. First a security guard tried to drive his car through the picket line early in the dispute, severely injuring one worker’s arm. It later emerged he was acting on the instructions of management, who had promised to pay for any damage to his car.
Then on Friday November 11 police launched an attack on the picket, attempting to bring in two vans of scab labour. But in a victory for the strikers the police were pushed back. A number of workers Baiada had recruited to scab refused to cross the picket line and signed up to join the NUW.
The police attack followed a court order that banned NUW officials from joining the picket.
One worker had to be rushed to hospital after police trampled on his legs in their assault on the picket.
Yet the media demonised the workers as “violent”, with Miranda Devine complaining of a “violent attack by union heavies” on the security guard. Julia Gillard, too, joined the chorus, decrying “violence”.
The brave stand by Baiada workers shows how to fight to defend jobs and pay. It is an example for workers everywhere.
By James Supple