A vegetarian in the ham factory

Consider the smallgoods factory floor. Lines of stainless steel machinery, steam and frosty chillers compete along kilometres of conveyor belts. Here we overcome tedium, endure cold and noisy conditions. We work for the company of the invisible pig.

I am on the team of about thirty extras, the casual Christmas crew put on in September to deliver tens of tons of products per shift to meet the summer demand for ham, bacon and smallgoods. Our output depends on how well the machinery works, how our bodies operate, cooperate. I feel like the smallest of cogs in a plethora of turning wheels.

Smells of cold copper, saline and meatish sulphur meet me as I leave the day behind in the carpark, entering the plant through a metal turnstile. I am beeped in with my identity card, caged momentarily. I change into factory garb, white industrial pants and top. The day shift is finishing, a tide of tired bodies pass by along the first long corridor. Aged, ragged faces, and rounded young ones. Most have blank, dark-rimmed eyes under light-blue hairnets. They all look knackered. Those wearing iridescent green-trimmed tops like me work with cooked products. Others, in bright orange-trimmed tops, work with raw meats and leave their shift with sleeves and thighs streaked red and brown, bloodstained. White industrial gumboots or steel-capped work boots are smeared with fats and blood. Mandatory hearing protection – red earmuffs – perch like mouse ears on the sides of heads, or earplugs dangle from cords around necks. We all wear whatever layers we can underneath the uniform to keep warm: thermals, scarves and beanies under hairnets are scant identifiers of individuality. Bald-headed men have lonely-looking domes under loosely woven nylon nets. Women’s thick folded tresses bulge through flimsy constraints.

I hardly feel the hairnet on my head, just a sense of being bare-headed when I remove it at midnight, the end of the evening shift. I call the hairnet ‘the great leveler’. Like swimwear on the beach, hairnets assign humanity to an almost equal platform, with differentiation diminished.

Traipsing long corridors together, there’s a comfort in feeling part of a herd. We all wear hairnets. We clock on.

My workmates come from many countries: Taiwan, Sudan, the Philippines, the Punjab in north India, a smattering of Caucasian Aussies. Ages range from seventeen to sixty, life stories abound. There are quite a few tattoos on necks and knuckles. There are Masters graduates looking for professional careers, worked here three or more years. There are youngsters just out of school, others who have travelled after finishing school and working to replenish coffers for another trip or saving to start uni. Young and old have missing teeth; I see no one with braces. There’s a trainee teacher earning money to finish her course. A Filipina mother of five is working to save for her children’s tertiary education. Sudanese refugees with haunted eyes and enormous smiles have worked here for seven years, since escaping the war. The room coordinator walks up and down each production line ensuring safety gear is worn, that the conveyors are not jamming, that the flow of work is seamless. Our pace increases momentarily each time he passes. We all turn different shades of pink and brown as we work together in refrigerated conditions. We are glad to have a job; we’re bringing home the bacon, so to speak.

My vantage point is miniscule in this enormous labyrinth. There are separate massive plants for hams, bacons, salamis; different ‘rooms’ for mould-fill, cooking, smoking, steaming, for slicing, packing and load out. Robots lift boxes onto pallets, and computers link each room’s production to the administration. My small role on one production line is but a tiny nut in this churning machine.

Tasks are broken down into numerous small parts. The hams move more quickly along the line when we separate each tiny step: Taylorism rules.

The Cryovac room has four production lines; each consists of stainless steel pasteurisers and coolers and the ‘octopus’, linked by endless revolving conveyor belts, plastic clip-locked highways. About twenty people process four or five different products per shift or, on a deadly boring night, just one or two changes to routine. Targets are up to thirty tons packed per shift, six nights a week. The room is mostly close to three degrees, sometimes colder: about the same as an average fridge. If the machinery works we can work up a sweat. If the system fails, we stand around rubbing our arms, clapping our plastic-gloved hands like flippers.

The raw material is mostly imported from North America, Brazil and Scandinavia as boneless mashed meat, frozen in bulk. Meat on the bone is more likely to be Australian. Australian pigs. Imported meats are thawed and mixed with salts and secret ingredients in gargantuan mixers in the ‘mould-fill’ room into every imaginable shape of ‘ham’. From there, products goes through giant cookers and smoking chambers then stored in chilling rooms before it comes on trolleys to the prep table where we prepare it for Cryovac bagging. We have had basic knife handling training and been issued knives and scabbards tied with white plastic chains around our waists. Everyone wears thin disposable-plastic aprons and pull-on sleeves. White cotton gloves under the blue disposables help our hands from numbing with cold. On the prep table we wear plastic glasses to protect our eyes from errant knives, which may slip on greasy handles.

Trolleys of a certain batch number contain racks upon racks of meat, each lump three to six kilograms in their clipped cooking nets or plastic tubes. Boneless champagne ham, double smoked, honey, Virginian ham, Melosi, soccerball ham, heart-tick ham, or chunks of roast pork basting in cooking bags, sluicing in juices and congealed fats. When enormous legs of ham-on-the-bone emerge from the chiller, the shape of rump and shank of leg are recognisably porcine. I start to determine the left and right leg by the positioning of the bones.

Don’t think of the animal, I repeat to myself.

The bespectacled quality supervisor takes the temperatures of ham samples by jabbing a spiked thermometer into the meat and writing the results on sheets of paper, complex tables with rows and columns of numbers, product numbers, weights, temperatures, times of day.

We lift meat off the trolleys onto the prep table, cut off metal clips on each end, remove bags or nets, slide the de-frocked lump onto a conveyor belt towards the bandsaw. Our knives are sharp, but not as lethal looking as the bandsaw. The whirr of the blade and hiss-ker-chunk of the safety shields raising and dropping becomes rhythmic. I line up the ham, squeeze hydraulic handles, push the lump through the spinning blade, severing salted flesh in halves, which hit the shiny blue conveyor, roll into the first pasteurizer with a thump. Can’t help thinking of guillotines. I do this hundreds of times before it is time to rotate jobs. That which was once onerous or gruesome becomes tedious, non-descript. ‘Chop chop’ is a common refrain called around the windowless room while waiting for the next product.

Every half hour we shift places, doing a new task in our section of the line.  Dexterous women work on the bagging table, slipping the meat into cryovac bags before sending it on another endless moving belt to ‘Oci’, short for octopus, the five-limbed Cryovac™ suction machine that clamps and vacuum seals the bagged meat. Its slushing heart beat underscores the room. Before disappearing into ‘load out’, the vacuum-sealed meat slides through the metal detector, one piece at a time.

Here we also check for ‘airies’, which are not related to the Greek god of war, despite being pronounced the same. If the airless seal is not complete, the ‘airy’ is plucked off the belt and returned back to the start of the line. White plastic chainmail-type conveyors deposit a ham every six to ten seconds. A light flashes, a beep beeps every time. I become mindless.

The orchestration of noise is haphazard, loud, competitive. ‘Oci’ sucks and shlushes, setting the basic rhythm of the room. Conveyor belts hiss, pasteurisers pant steam and the bandsaw zings and clangs on each cut. Exhaust fans hum, hand-pushed forklifts toot and buzz. The industrial nurse who did our pre-work medicals stressed the importance of wearing hearing protection. She was right. Some shout, shrill voices above the roar and hiss of machinery, but by the end of the night, hand signs suffice: we cannot outdo the machines.

There’s little cultural space for whingers or whiners. Experienced workers tell me complaining won’t make the work any easier or the night pass faster. Companionship in shared labour creates a bond. On the factory floor we help each other, indicating support with gestures. Awareness of small cooperations with the person working alongside helps the meat and time move more quickly. Tall young men lift heavy hams from top trolley shelves when I cannot reach. An experienced worker sharpens my knife, flicking it lightly on the steel, making the work smoother, saving painful joints in my hands and wrists. Someone collects my eye-protection glasses left on a bench, saving me a fifty-metre walk across the room to get them. Some break into snippets of songs, repeat favourite lines of eighties melodies, magnified under their earmuffs, fuzzy behind the background monotonous grind of machinery. We smile. We ignore those who are lazier, slower or thoughtless on the line. Bitchy snipes and gossip stilt the flow. We all have bad nights and good.

On smoko breaks we sit silently in the canteen, bodies shocked by prolonged cold and noise, hungry for warm food. Enormous televisions blare commercials on the wall. Most of us stare at our phones, playing games or sending messages to an outside world. Conversations are slow to crank, intermittent. We all wear hairnets, heads down as we eat. There are no pigs, no images of pigs, no mention of pigs. This is the place of the invisible pig. We never mention the animal: the lives and deaths that come before the product remain unspoken, unseen.

As a vegetarian I face hellish conundrums. Like most, I block thoughts of factory pigs, fattened in cages little larger than their long-slabbed sides. I wall out our insults to their sentience, their intelligence; I join the throngs who ignore their expressions of feelings, their wails, grunts and screams. I shut-off, clamped tight, but at the same time I am sheared open, filled with respect for the people I work with. Considering where the slated pink flesh originates, I smash into places where human and animal collide.

At the end of the shift, we clean up and clock off. Individuals emerge as uniforms are shed in the locker rooms. We beep ourselves out of the labyrinth through the turnstile, lightness in our liberation. First breaths of fresh evening air are exhilarating. We have no hairnets, just ourselves in the night, under starry skies, keen to get home for some sleep before the next shift. Think of us if you eat hams this Christmas, bacon for breakfast, salami for your nibblies. It is our hands, our aching wrists, our numbed feet and netted heads that have been a small part of the machinery of production. We suffer little in comparison; we too are silenced in the herd.

Deborah Wardle

Deborah is a freelance writer from Castlemaine, Central Victoria, with works recently published in The Big Issue and on the E-Hospice site of Palliative Care Australia. She has recently completed a Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at Melbourne University. She is having a slow ramble towards the end of the year.

More by Deborah Wardle ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. As a fellow vegetarian I found this evocative description particularly chilling! And it made me appreciate the hard, exhausting and invisible work that underpins our traditional Christmas feast. But just like the workers themselves, I had to keep banishing images or ‘Babe’ from my mind as I read on.

  2. Great piece of non-fiction. Cunning how we disguise the fact of death at the dinner table through misnomers. Everyone is implicated. Why should a worker / workers take on the guilt of the group?

  3. A lovely and thought provoking piece of writing, detailing a world hidden for most. Thanks for shedding some light on the industry and those that work within it.

  4. What an evocative and timely piece of writing. I will not see the ham on the Christmas plate as blindly as I have in previous years; our dinner will be the last station in this long and chilling industrial conveyance.

  5. This is a really nice piece of work (though I’m mindful of the pain and exhaustion out of which it was made) reminding me of the tradition (if it is a tradition) of Upton Sinclair; the products of the work may be ethically questionable, but the experiences of the human beings making them in many ways mirrors something about the product. Thanks.

  6. Thankyou for this incite. I do not eat meat, and after finding out about the cruelty of factory farmed pigs, and the gassing of pigs, I’m left wondering how the human race can treat these intelligent creatures so badly, whilst treating dogs so lovingly. Its conditioning to except without question what we grow up with no doubt. Pigs don’t get to be in natural surroundings. See sunlight. Gassing is torture. I’ve seen footage that’s clearly shown the archaic method of killing. It saddens me greatly that people don’t bother to find out all about what they’re eating.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.