During a work meeting, an information sheet on cow health is passed around the milking shed. It shows how to mark sick animals according to a code recognised in factories across Australia. The team fall silent behind our masks. We know that if COVID-19 got into the farm, we could all be replaced in an instant – the cows would be okay if the company decided to truck in new employees. But we’re humans. And the seasonal workforce isn’t prepared for this pandemic.
Months after dairy shortages first loomed on Victoria’s horizon, the precarity of the state’s animal agriculture industry has been exposed by the COVID-19 health crisis. Several outbreaks have emerged from meat processing warehouses in the state’s hinterlands and the outskirts of Melbourne’s western suburbs. Almost 300 cases are thought to be linked to abattoirs where heavily casualised workforces are the least prepared for an infectious disease outbreak.
Bearing the brunt of the food industry crisis are temporary migrant workers, who make up a large and important part of the rural workforce, but who are most at risk of losing their income and Visa status if worker restrictions are brought in. At a factory in Warrnambool, around 400 people are expected to be laid off as stage 4 restrictions are put in place to prevent workplace outbreaks. This will have disastrous effects on the local economy, but the shocks will be felt first by the insecure workforce.
As the Australian Council of Trade Unions writes in their National Economic Reconstruction Plan, ‘every recession tends to increase inequality, but this one is having a dramatic disequalising effect because of the concentration of job losses and reduced hours among workers who were badly-paid and insecure at the start of the pandemic.’
For insecure workers, ‘going back to normal’ is not possible or desired. What the pandemic has shown us is that in order to sustain the rural workforce, we need to improve the material and structural conditions that put precarious workers at risk. COVID-19 spreads easily along production lines where poor ventilation, cold temperatures and a lack of protective equipment are prevalent. Many seasonal workers also live in crowded accommodation, and are required to travel into town centres to access testing for COVID-19. The experience of Midfield Meats shows that workplace testing is crucial to primary prevention; but without protections in place to ensure that employees can access sick leave, seasonal workers are left vulnerable. No casuals can self-isolate when there is no guarantee that our job will still be there if we take time off for health reasons. In a pandemic, this is unacceptable.
We are not disposable.
As I write this, I haven’t been outside my work accommodation for a month, and I haven’t been able to see my family outside of a screen in six months. But I’m one of the lucky ones. I have my partner, a job and a place to stay. In my home state of Tasmania, we have the highest youth unemployment rate in the country, which is expected to rise to 25 or even 30 per cent in 2021, locking more young people into long-term structures of poverty. Many young people ‘cross the ditch’ to find employment in Victoria. And yet, FIFO construction workers are being flown into Tasmania and exempted from quarantine to build hotels for a powerful government donor. The business-led economy insists that poor communities remain in precarity for the convenience of private interests; but we can’t afford to let this happen anymore. The open loop system of flying people in and out, exploiting people trapped in insecure work, and ignoring the needs of local communities is only benefiting a small few.
Currently the shortage of seasonal workers for the Tasmanian fruit harvest has been a hot topic of conversation on the island, as the exodus of backpackers on working holiday visas reveals how few locals are actually able to work these jobs. Astonishingly low piece rates and poor working conditions are some of the barriers to local workers, who are expected to work for rates as low as $4 an hour – the rate of pay I earned as an eighteen-year-old high school graduate. The COVID-19 crisis can be a turning point. Indeed, it has to be. Late capitalism is a ticking time bomb.
After a summer of intense bushfires and drought, the health crisis has hit regional communities with a double blow. Many farmers had to bury cattle among the billions of animals that died in the catastrophic bushfires during the summer of 2019-2020. Now, an excess of grass left by the absence of grazing livestock and wildlife has sparked predictions for an early bushfire season in NSW. It’s a terrifying cycle.
As I walk to work, I watch cows traipsing across the fields, gigantic turbines ticking over the windy hills, tufts of grass peeping up where there was only cracked mud a few weeks ago. In a month’s time the grass will grow enough for us to roll it into bales of fodder. In a few months, the green paddocks will turn to dustbowl, but the grass will come back again when the rain comes. The steadiness of the seasons makes me feel calm.
On good days, I feel hope that COVID-19 offers us a chance to slow down, reflect and reclaim the mental space to imagine a better world. With the looming crisis of global warming, we have to address the structural inequality that has magnified COVID-19 for disadvantaged communities. We can’t decouple these crises; we need to tackle them together to ensure that no one is left behind.