Poultry workers and consumers are being put at risk by increasing demands to produce cheap poultry, according to a new report.
The National Union of Workers (NUW) today released the findings of an investigation into the workplace safety practices in the poultry industry, which found “worrying signs that some of the country’s leading poultry suppliers are sacrificing safety for higher profits.”
The Better Jobs 4 Better Chicken report makes five recommendations for improving safety in the sector, across employment, labelling, housing of animals and food safety.
It says the increasing demand for cheap poultry by supermarkets and fast food chains is creating health problems for consumers.
“While the supermarkets may want Australian consumers to believe they are always buying top quality products, the NUW believes that often they are not,” the report states.
“Woolworths and Wesfarmers have flagged chicken meat as the next battleground in their ‘price war’.
“The pressure to lower costs has been passed on to suppliers, leading them to compete on
labour costs rather than reduce their own profit margins.
“Unscrupulous suppliers are then passing this pressure onto the worker on the production line.”
The companies causing the most problems for the industry are identified in the report as Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, while the worst fast food offenders are Nandos, Red Rooster, McDonald’s and KFC.
“The domination of the major supermarkets is having a detrimental impact,” the report states.
“The major purchasers of poultry meat are the supermarkets.
“They purchase around 60% of the chicken meat produced.
“The Australian grocery retail sector is highly concentrated, with only two major competitors; Coles (Wesfarmers) and Woolworths.
“These two companies control 72% of the market, which has resulted in low cost promotions and places pressure on poultry processors to lower the cost they demand for their product.”
Old chicken re-packaged and sold as "free range"
In one case study, the union found workers re-label old chickens returned by supermarkets and send them out again as new products.
One worker told researchers he often packs chickens that have been left lying on dirty floors, which are then sent off to be sold, while others have highlighted the concerning working conditions inside the factories.
“Returned tray packs are turned into kebab or marinade and sent back out,” Poultry worker Erica* says.
“I would never buy chicken from Coles or Aldi because of what I have seen.”
Some student workers report sleeping at processing facilities instead of going home, and Adelaide chicken worker, Sokhom Koey, told how he lost his job because he asked that workers doing 12-hour shifts receive breaks.
He was paid 44 cents for each chicken he deboned and was not allowed time off.
"I have a family and I want to spend more time with my family," Koey said.
"But when I have tried to take time off in the past, I have been told that if I take time off there won’t be a job for me when I come back."
Safety issues not being addressed
A recent site audit completed by NUW offi cials indicates that 20% of workers in processing are engaged through non-standard means of employment, including cash-in-hand work, sham contracting and unethical employment, the report says.
“I asked the contractor many times to be paid at the legal minimum but she said there wasn’t enough money,” Harpreet Sing, a contractor at a poultry facility in Melbourne says.
The report also provides details on accidents and deaths in poultry processing plants, as workers are often asked to clean machinery they don’t ordinarily work with.
“Baiada Poultry is not the only company to be fi ned for a death in a poultry processing plant in recent years,” the report says.
“In 2003 Ingham Enterprises was fined $20,000 for the 2001 death of 37-year-old Stirling Gerard Comey. Comey, a contract truck driver was working at Ingham’s Somerville plant when a faulty brake caused him to be crushed and killed.
“WorkSafe Victoria found Ingham’s processes were unsafe because people and trucks were not separated before and during loading and unloading.
“Once again a death occurred when an indirect employment relationship was involved.
“In December 2005, Baiada Poultry was also convicted and fined $100,000 for safety failings which led to the death of St Albans contractor, Mario Azzopardi.”
The NUW has recommended a ban on using contractors in the poultry industry, as well as the introduction of a code of conduct for workers.
To help further reduce the level of illegal contract work in the industry, the NUW also wants changes to student visa working hours and to the Migration Act.
Ingham’s commended for ethical and safe practices
But amid the shocking stories of possible food contamination and workers safety, one company was highlighted for its commitment to safety and quality.
Ingham Enterprises is highlighted in the report as a good operator with a direct employment model, which reduces the risk of cross-contamination of raw poultry in its processing facilities.
"Ingham Enterprises is a profitable company that respects its workers and helps them find roles to suit their skills and needs," the report says.
Image: NUW Report.