News & Media > Editorials > Slaughterhouses aren't safe, for anyone.

Slaughterhouses aren't safe, for anyone.

By Kristy Alger
Tue 19 May 2020, 5:50pm

In late April 2020 a worker from Cedar Meats entered a Melbourne A&E seeking treatment for a severed thumb, an injury sustained in a workplace accident. Shortly after they were diagnosed with COVID-19, sparking the beginning of Victoria’s largest virus cluster and exposing the Australian meat industry to scrutiny over workplace safety and associated community health.

The first case of the Cedar Meats cluster was confirmed on April 2. Staff were not informed until after further cases arose on April 24 and 25, and were not given leave to remain home until April 29. Masks were provided a day later but were not mandatory except in the boning room. On May 1 staff were called to an onsite meeting held indoors in groups of 15-70: one worker claims physical distancing was not observed and that the virus was likely spread further that morning.

At the time of writing the cluster has infected 100 people, including an A&E nurse, an aged care worker, and a college student, with three Commonwealth meat inspectors and a WorkSafe investigator requiring testing. The slaughterhouse itself will reopen May 18.

Sources from Cedar Meats allege the individuals initially primarily affected were migrant workers housed together in communal accommodation, a claim verified by the Victorian Chief Health Officer who likened the cohabitation of staff as a contributing factor in the outbreak to those outbreaks which have occurred on a larger scale in the USA, resulting in thousands of infections and dozens of deaths with migrant workers disproportionately affected.

The housing of slaughterhouse workers in close living conditions resulting in health and safety risks is not uncommon in Australia. In 2015, Baiada was fined for their exploitation of migrant labour including refugees; workers were charged exorbitant rents by labour companies supplying workers to the poultry company, with 20-30 workers confined to 2-3 bedroom houses. Inadequate housing of migrant workers was one of many issues listed in the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union's 2015 Senate submission on the impact of 471 Visas; other issues included long hours, low pay, and racial discrimination in the workplace.

Whether similar issues are uncovered at Cedar Meats remains to be seen. The company are currently under investigation over animal cruelty allegations from late 2019, as well as the ongoing WorkSafe Victoria investigation into the COVID-19 cluster. And compounding the company’s myriad problems are revelations that the former company which oversaw the daily operations of the slaughterhouse, which crashed in 2016, left behind millions of dollars worth of debt to the ATO and in unpaid WorkCover claims. Certainly Cedar Meats does not enjoy a good reputation with workers in the industry, with comments in a large meat workers Facebook group describing the facility as “dodgy as f*ck” and “nothing but a tip.”

But is Cedar Meats an isolated case?

In the same aforementioned group (in which workplace injuries are frequently paraded like badges of honour) the question was asked whether members felt confident their workplaces were adequately prepared to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19. Responses varied from “it depends on who you’re working for” to “f*ck no.” One response stated staff at their facility had been banned from wearing masks. Multiple animal cruelty exposés of Australian slaughterhouses have revealed substandard hygiene practices at a number of facilities. And the very nature of high-volume slaughter itself necessitates workers operating in close quarters along the kill line. Cedar Meats is not an outlier, rather it is an indication of the potential for most if not all slaughterhouses to become epicentres for disease outbreaks, as evidenced by those sweeping across facilities in the USA and Germany.

In addition to the issue of non-human animal rights, the issues of workplace safety, worker exploitation and the potential for disease outbreaks must lead the broader community to question the place slaughterhouses have in our society, and their continued support by both consumers and governments beyond Covid-19. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes:

This pandemic is like a lightening strike that has for a brief moment illuminated for all of us the values that guide factory farm corporations.

I would go further. It is not simply the workings of factory farms that have been illuminated by the Cedar Meats case, but the inherent dangers our relationship with non-human animals poses to us as a species that have been illuminated in stark relief, with slaughterhouses situated at the very centre.





Kristy Alger

Kristy Alger is an activist, concerned citizen and mother of three living in lutruwita/Tasmania. She is the current president of Animal Liberation Tasmania and strives to live her life according to the principles of consistent anti-oppression.