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Issue #1505      15 June 2011

Live exports – another ugly side to capitalist globalisation

The effect on the Australian public of Four Corners’ exposé of the live cattle trade with Indonesia has been dramatic. In just a few days, almost a quarter of a million people signed an online petition organised by the GetUp! lobby group to have the trade stopped. It seemed that everybody was talking about the program entitled Bloody Business in the days following the broadcast of the ABC’s bombshell. Only those with financial interests in the lucrative trade were prepared to defend it or try to explain away what TV audiences saw. Butchers reported a drop in meat sales as consumers confronted some realities of the global food business.

Light had been shone on another of the ugly sides of capitalist globalisation. Big business, agribusiness in this instance, has been reaping hefty returns by exporting jobs from more regulated, higher wage countries like Australia to relatively unregulated, low wage centres like Indonesia. What has happened over the years to the meat industry in this country is not a pretty picture, either. Meat processing corporations have been on an extended drive to force the union out of the industry and introduce more “flexible” practices. Guest workers on type 457 visas have been abused in this process.

The fight for jobs

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) has been leading protests against live animal exports for decades. In the 1980s, the union was locked in frustrating negotiations with Australian authorities to shut down the trade or at least get a ratio of live-to-packaged meat that would safeguard local jobs. The government was having none of that – in today’s neo-liberal world, markets and super profits rule.

A report from as long ago as 2002 by S G Heilbron Pty Ltd (commissioned by the Australian Meat Processor Corporation) estimated that the live export trade had cost the Australian economy $1.5 billion in lost GDP, around $270 million in household income and around 10,500 jobs. The AMIEU website has YouTube interviews with abattoir workers in North Queensland suffering cancelled shifts and inadequate working hours per week who daily watch cattle trucks driving right past the abattoir, taking animals to huge ships for slaughter overseas. Over 700 meat workers had either been laid off or had their shifts severely cut back in the six months leading up to the posting of one particular YouTube to the internet last year.

Until a program like Bloody Business breaks through public apathy, it is a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. The AMIEU is portrayed by industry heavyweights as simply protecting their “patch”. Even protests by Labor MPs have been rebuffed. In September last year, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig had to put the members for Lyon, Page and Fremantle in their place when they expressed support for a private members’ bill to ban live exports. “We have currently a policy on live animal exports and ... I’ve got no intention on changing that, but I always encourage members, senators to bring forward their issues because of course it is about engagement and understanding the perspective from different regions.”

That was before the furore caused by Bloody Business. In the aftermath of the program, exports destined for the most notorious of the Indonesian abattoirs were halted. When the controversy didn’t go away, a moratorium on the whole trade with Indonesia was put in place for six months or until “the government establishes sufficient supply chain assurance for cattle from Australia to Indonesia,” as a more conciliatory Mr Ludwig said last week.

Not just Indonesia

The government no doubt hopes that “tough” action on the exports to Indonesia will limit growing objections to the whole trade. For decades protests about the treatment of animals shipped to the Middle East have fallen on deaf ears. Conditions at abattoirs in Egypt, for example, were briefly mentioned and shown on Bloody Business. The welfare of sheep and cattle aboard ships has also been in the headlines over the years. In 2002, for example, more than 14,000 sheep perished aboard four separate vessels travelling from Western Australia and Victoria to the Middle East. The government considers a two percent mortality rate for transported sheep and goats and one percent for cattle as acceptable. That is still a lot of animals.

Causes of the deaths include insanitation (47 percent), salmonellosis (26.9 percent), trauma (12.2 percent) and “miscellaneous” (13.9 percent). Over 2.5 million animals have died on route since the 1980s. Reports of disease and deaths at sea damage the reputation of Australian exports of chilled and frozen meat which are still worth roughly 6.5 times the live export trade.

The live trade lobby argues that the industry employs over 12,000 people and contributes $1.8 billion to GDP annually. This ignores the fact that many of the jobs tied to the live trade would be taken up by local operations if the largely self-regulating live trade were shut down. The “value-added” component of local processing would be a boost to local communities dependent on the meat industry.

Live trade spokespersons also claim that Middle East markets have a preference for “hot meat” and that the animals have to have a Halal killing. Animals can be killed according to Halal requirements in Australia with the added humane safeguard that they are stunned prior for killing. Animals Australia (an animal welfare organisation involved in the Four Corners report) has reported since 2003 that Halal requirements are routinely ignored in Egypt, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Big interests in the live export trade talk about respect for local traditions but are really defending maximum profits with the least bother.

Another fine mess

This reckless attitude – so typical under capitalism – has landed local graziers caught up in the live export trade in a fine mess. Small farmers are also affected. The federal government is tapping its contingency fund to compensate local producers for some of their losses. A first instalment of $5 million is being talked about. Assistance to upgrade the industry in Indonesia is also being discussed, including the installation of more restraining boxes for cattle for use during slaughter.

This desperate patch-up and the scandal that prompted it should be a lesson to the neo-liberal zealots in government but they probably won’t be. Big business pulls the strings and it will take concerted action to force some compliance. The people of Australia are clear, though. They have asked for the live export trade to be shut down entirely over the next three years.

Acknowledgements – Animals Australia  

Next article – Editorial – Strong arm of the ruling class / Cruel trade

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