Wednesday 27 September 2023 | UPDATE
Workers at Ingham’s chicken plants in South Australia and West Australia have won an improved pay offer, better in-housing of labour-hire workers and improved breaks after five days on strike.
Management originally offered 3.9 per cent in the first year and 3.5 per cent in years two and three.
But by standing strong, about 1000 UWU members have won 5.12 per cent in the first year (including back pay) and 4 per cent in following years.
The pay deal still falls short of maintaining real wages, however. Some workers wanted to continue the strike to get closer to the original 6, 6, 6 per cent demand, but a majority voted to go back to work.
In any case morale is high and the strikers feel they’ve had a big win in terms of respect and dignity.
Inghams has also agreed to an external audit to investigate the behaviour of senior management in both states.
There was a determined and celebratory mood last Friday morning among hundreds of workers picketing the Ingham’s Burton poultry plant on Kaurna land in northern Adelaide.
Members of the United Workers Union (UWU) have begun an indefinite strike for pay rises that keep up with the cost of living, with union members in WA and some other SA sites also taking strike action.
Delegate Michelle Tan told Solidarity, “I’m feeling amazing. I’m so pumped to see so many people united on how we can come together and fight.”
It’s clear Ingham’s can afford to pay the three annual wage increases of 6 per cent the union is demanding. UWU Secretary Tim Kennedy told the ABC that Ingham’s “increased their profits in the last year by 72 per cent to $60.5 million”. Ingham’s CEO Andrew Reeves is on a base salary of $1.2 million, following a 9 per cent pay rise this year.
Michelle observed, “When you have greedy people sitting in their fancy rooms making money off of the hard work that you are doing, but not appreciating what we do, that’s disgusting.”
Another striker, Ben, put things very clearly, “The CEO and manager have to remember that the money they’re getting paid comes from us. We do the work.”
Parts of the picket on Friday resembled a party, with a barbecue, and a PA pumping out dance tunes. Delegates and organisers kept an eye on the many gates into the plant, ensuring all were adequately covered by picketers.
A smaller crowd of would-be scabs gathered across the road, as management and security prowled around seeking a way to get them into work. Members waved union T-shirts, calling on their unconvinced workmates to join. Some did take the shirts and join the pickets.
The next day, Ben described how management got some scabs in, violating their promises to protect the scabs’ safety. “They cut their own [Cyclone wire] fence. And tell the workers to squeeze through little, little gaps. Do you think that is safe?”
The company told The Australian the plant was completely shut following the strike. However, in Sunday’s heat, management spitefully moved a skip bin full of rotting chicken parts next to the picket. Workers put peppermint oil on masks so they could stand their ground despite the stench.
Michelle described the intensity of the work at the plant. “We get three breaks a day, two 15-minute smokos, and half an hour lunch. But the 15-minute smokos don’t work out to be that, because if we are not on the line and ready to pack within that 15 minutes, we’ll get a warning. We’re disciplined hard.”
Another delegate, Natascha Hale, reinforced this, “It’s a hard slog in there. And these people really do deserve a higher wage. Because it’s a repetitive type of job, there’s a lot of injuries as well. There’s not a really good rotation [between tasks] happening. You have a lot of people that have got injuries and then that’ll clear up, they’ll get a bit of physio and they’ll be put back into the process again and it’ll just start all over again.”
Ben summed it up, “We are not just fighting for the money, we are fighting for our dignity. We’re just labourers, to make money for them. In olden ways with slavery, they force you to do some work, and they give you nothing back. But this one, they’re giving you a little something. And they’re making you do things that are not right. So we say it’s a modern slavery way.”
Michelle described how the strike had brought together workers from a multitude of ethnic groups. “Some of these people, they’ve struggled all their lives. They’re immigrants, they’ve come from other countries thinking they’d have a better life, but still get treated the same, working for pennies.
“It’s outstanding just how far we’ve come from standing there packing, not knowing each other, to now holding hands, showing that we can do this. If we could all do this, life and the world would be amazing.”
Controlling much of the staple food supply for SA’s population, these workers are in a powerful position to win. A breakthrough at Ingham’s for real wage increases could encourage other workers to fight for pay rises that catch up with inflation.
The dispute is going to the Fair Work Commission today for conciliation. This could lead to pressure on the workers to accept less than their full demands. Strong union organisation, with delegates drawn from the shopfloor, means the Ingham’s workers are well placed to resist any such pressure.
Michelle explained the strike “will show other people to have the courage, stand together, have the passion to do it. Everybody can do it as long as they are united.”
As Ben put it, “There are other people out there who have the same problem like us. It’s an example to them that you have the right to fight for what you want. When we win here, they will come out and fight. So we are fighting for everyone.”
By Robert Stainsby. Thanks to Daryl Bullen for assistance with interviews
Everyone in Adelaide who wants to support the workers should call in to the corner of Burton and Port Wakefield Roads, Burton, and be part of this inspiring struggle.
Donations can be made to the strike fund here.