Wednesday, 13 September 2006
Matters of Public Interest
Meat Industry: Mr Aaron Leslie Willis
I would like to take note of a matter that goes to the Australian government’s New Apprenticeships program that provides subsidies to employers who take on trainees under the scheme. The meat industry is widely acknowledged as an industry which is characterised as involving very hard work that is often very dangerous and which has an exceptionally high injury rate for workers. All too often we see a situation where businesses close down, taking with them workers’ entitlements and seeking to act in a manner which is unacceptable to the rest of the economy. Just this week with the abattoir at Cowra we saw that ASIC had been very slow to act, we saw the operations of the government’s Office of Workplace Services—which is clearly not speaking to ASIC—and we saw a situation where the Australian Taxation Office had failed to talk to other agencies. Some have likened the regulation of this industry to the Australian government not being able to track a bleeding elephant through snow.
This is what we saw in the tragic case of a young trainee in the meat industry. This case, like others, raised serious questions about the Australian government’s approach to the welfare and safety of young people who receive training under the New Apprenticeships program, particularly in the meat industry. This is the story of a young man of just 18 years of age by the name of Aaron Leslie Willis, who was employed as a trainee by Midfield Meat International in Warrnambool in my home state of Victoria. Young Aaron had successfully completed year 12 in 2004. He was a good student. He was also the chess champion of his school, Warrnambool College, and he represented the college in interschool chess tournaments. Aaron was good at art. He was seeking a career in computer animation and graphic design. He took on a meat industry traineeship to get a bit of money together so that he could further his studies. All this came to an abrupt end on 31 May 2005 when, at the Midfield abattoir in Warrnambool, young Aaron fell three metres into a mincing machine. Fortunately, I hasten to add, the mincer was not operating at the time and so he was not actually minced. Unfortunately for Aaron, he hit his head and suffered a serious injury. He was knocked unconscious and taken to Warrnambool Base Hospital, where he remained unconscious for at least 18 hours. After the accident Aaron began to have severe and frequent epileptic seizures. He died, apparently following a seizure, on the night preceding the morning of Thursday 25 May 2006, when his body was found by a housemate.
Aaron’s cause of death has never officially been confirmed, but what is apparent to me is that the accident that preceded his illness occurred at Midfield Meat. Furthermore, when the accident occurred and an ambulance was called for Aaron, under the Victorian workplace safety legislation the company was supposed to pay for the cost of the ambulance—but it failed to do so. Midfield Meat refused to meet the cost of Aaron’s medical attention. When he died, Aaron was still paying off the bill for the ambulance transportation. Midfield Meat also charged him for the boots that he was wearing at the time of his accident. And there is still more: on the day after the accident, when Aaron was still lying unconscious in hospital, Midfield Meat sacked him and terminated his training contract. I say that that is an action contrary to Victorian law.
In addition to these unlawful actions, Midfield Meat failed to advise young Aaron of his rights regarding workers compensation, which was also required under Victorian law. So Aaron was unemployed, he was suffering the ongoing effects of a serious head injury and he was also not made aware that he could make an application for compensation for that injury. Aaron spent the last year of his life trying to exist on Youth Allowance and he died in debt. Aaron had a loving mother and a family who were bereft at his death. So his mother approached his union, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, the AMIEU, and the union has undertaken to take up the case with specific regard to the treatment of trainees at Midfield Meat.
The company’s training practices deserve close scrutiny on several counts. First, how was it that Aaron Willis was able to fall into a mincer in the first place? Did the machine have a guard? It should not be possible for young apprentices, or anyone else for that matter, to fall into a mincing machine. Midfield’s occupational health and safety practices need to be looked at, especially with regard to how the company exercises its duty of care for young employees and trainees. On this question, the matter was referred by the union to WorkSafe Victoria. On the basis of what it terms ‘preliminary inquiries,’ WorkSafe Victoria has decided not to investigate Aaron’s death and the accident that led to his death.
It is understood that the company provided the authority with a version of events that differed from the account given by Aaron’s workmates who were with him at the time. It seems that the Victorian authority has chosen to believe this official account. It is unfortunate that WorkSafe Victoria has not taken a more proactive attitude in this case. Aaron has passed away, but there is the safety of other trainees and workers to think about—now and in the future. The union has recorded a number of other accidents at Midfield. Just in the last year, three workers have lost fingers while working in the abattoir.
Have the relevant Commonwealth authorities lifted a finger to check whether Midfield is treating its trainees properly—trainees that attract a Commonwealth subsidy of between $1,250 and $2,500 per annum? The answer, as far as I can ascertain, is a big no. And has the Department of Education, Science and Training, DEST—the department that administers the traineeship program with regard to employer subsidies—looked into the sheer number of trainees that Midfield takes on each year? According to information that I have been provided with, Midfield takes on, and presumably gets Commonwealth subsidies for, over 100 new trainees each year—more than 100 at Warrnambool, when its total workforce at that abattoir is only 500.
This is remarkable. Surely these figures call for investigation of what is actually going on. Why is there such a voracious need for training at this particular abattoir at these levels? Has DEST looked into whether Midfield is genuinely providing training? And what happens to the 100 youngsters at the end of their training every year? Where do those people go? I am advised that the company lets them go, and takes on another 100. It has an extraordinarily high churn rate. Has the department ever sought an explanation? Has the department ever asked itself: should we be using taxpayers’ money to subsidise this number of trainees, over and over again, at the one firm?
We are entitled to ask whether this is money down the drain. This is surely nothing more than a rort. Surely this is an exercise in getting cheap labour by way of a Commonwealth subsidy. These 100 workers are paid training wages. In the case of Aaron Willis, he received the princely sum of $352 a week—that is the annual equivalent of a little more than $18,000. And Aaron, as a trainee, attracted a Commonwealth subsidy for Midfield of $1,250 for the year. The company would have received that as an up-front payment.
Aaron commenced work with Midfield in February 2005. Did the company repay the Commonwealth the appropriate proportion after they sacked Aaron on 1 June, on the day after his accident, less than halfway through his year of training? How many other trainees does Midfield sack before they have completed the year? These are all questions that I seek answers to.
If you deduct the subsidy from his wages, Midfield Meat employed Aaron Willis at a cost of less than $17,000 a year. He was classified and paid as a casual so there would have been no holiday pay on top of that. The on-costs would have been minimal—as was the care, concern and responsibility that Midfield accorded to this young man.
There have been other cases of young apprentices and trainees dying as a result of workplace accidents. One was the sad case, in 2003, of 15-year-old Joel Exner, who fell off a roof he was working on and died because he had not been given a safety harness and had not received safety training. Joel was on his third day at work. Then there is the case of 17-year-old Dean McGoldrick, who died three years earlier when he fell from scaffolding on a building site. In January 2004 Daniel Maddely, aged just 17, was killed while using a powerful boring machine used in plastic moulding. There are no doubt many other cases. So I ask: what does DEST or the Australian government do to ensure that the kids whose training it subsidises are not exposed to dangerous workplaces and callous employers?
Finally, there is another practice of Midfield Meat that ought to be mentioned. And there is another decision by the Australian government, regarding this employer, that needs to be examined in the light of the facts that I have recounted here. Midfield Meat International has received approval from the immigration department, DIMA, to bring into Australia 100 extra skilled workers from China. That is 100 workers on top of the 100 subsidised trainees it takes on each year—and of course lets go. I find that extraordinary. What steps did DIMA take before it gave approval to Midfield for these 100 workers to be employed on 457 visas? Did it look into the training practices that the Commonwealth has been subsidising at this company?
I am aware that DIMA has suspended the granting of 457 visas for the meat industry, pending the development of a possible labour agreement. Nonetheless, the question remains: will Midfield be a party to the labour agreement that will allow the resumption of the granting of 457 visas to foreign meatworkers? Will Midfield be able to import its 100 workers, or even more workers, under the new agreement? Will Midfield be allowed to do that, despite its record in training local workers which, if the union figures are right, can only be described as profligate and wasteful in the extreme? Midfield not only turns over and throws out 100 or so trainees a year; it apparently cannot be trusted to look after the safety of trainees while they are on the job.
What all this shows is that the Howard government’s oversight and management of the Australian labour market, especially skills acquisition and training, can at best be described as careless. The government has neglected skills and training development, it has turned a blind eye to rorting and illegal practices amongst employers and it has failed abjectly to line up its training policies and priorities against its policies regarding the importation of cheap labour. It has in effect connived with employers—including employers like Midland Meat—to take blatant advantage of sloppy administration of programs across several departments. It has enabled bosses to rip off workers—local workers and foreign workers—and to hire them on the cheap.
Perhaps worst of all for these workers, the young people like Aaron, Joel and Daniel—kids who had ambitions and dreams—this government has stood by and done nothing after young Australians have lost their lives. Kids will go on losing their lives unless the government lifts its game. A Labor government will not sell kids short. It will make decent, safe, high-quality training a top priority. And Labor will ensure workers are imported only when genuine skill shortages can be proven to prevail. Anyone brought in from overseas to work in Australia should be guaranteed fair wages and conditions, equivalent to those applying to local jobs. Only Labor cares about trainees, young workers—all workers. That is what Labor is all about.