Artistic impression of story: Person in front of abattoir type building
Artistic impression of story: Person in front of abattoir type building
9 min read

Sam tested positive for COVID. Their boss told them to keep working

Staff at an abattoir in South Australia say they were made to stay on site after returning positive COVID-19 tests. At least 140 people - many of them migrant workers - are now believed to have contracted the virus.

Published Tuesday 18 January 2022
By Peta Doherty
Source: SBS
Workers at the Teys meatworks in Naracoorte, in South Australia’s southeast, say they were told to keep working despite testing positive to COVID-19 last week due to an SA Health-backed order. 

One staff member, a migrant visa holder, who spoke to SBS News on condition of anonymity, said they took a rapid antigen test at work last week which their supervisor informed them was positive. 

Sam (not their real name) said they had a runny nose but were asked to keep working. 

“I thought they would send me home to isolate but they told me ‘you are only allowed to go home if you have symptoms.’”

“It did not feel right.” 

The Teys meatworks in Naracoorte.
The Teys meatworks in Naracoorte. Source: SBS

Sam, one of at least 140 positive cases believed to be linked to the site, said they were worried about infecting colleagues, especially those with children.

“I feel very bad but I have no choice. I have no choice because they tell me it’s OK for me to work.” 

“I feel bad because, later on, all of my friends that were negative tested positive.”

I feel bad because all of my friends that were negative tested positive. - Sam, Abattoir worker
A week later, “the majority of the staff now have COVID,” Sam claimed of the 400-strong workforce. 

The majority are migrant workers from the Pacific and Asia working under the Meat Industry Labour Agreement and the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme.

Why were positive staff allowed to return?

It is understood state health officials approved the exceptional arrangements at the abattoir between Monday and Thursday last week to avoid significant loss of unprocessed beef.

Last Sunday the abattoir’s general manager of operations, Sage Murray, told staff in a letter they should still come to work unless they were "feeling unwell".

"As per our call to you today — and as confirmed by SA Health — you are required to present for work tomorrow [Monday] as normal unless you are feeling unwell." 

"This applies even if you have tested positive to COVID-19 either by a PCR or rapid test (RAT), and also if you are currently isolating because you are a close contact." 

The letter sent by Sage Murray.
Source: Supplied

SA Health “allowed a small group of critical staff who have tested positive and are asymptomatic, to continue to work in an isolated area away from others,” a department spokesperson previously told SBS News.

“These workers must remain at home and isolate when they are not at work until they are cleared from COVID.”

But SBS News has spoken to four other members of staff who said workers who were COVID positive and returned to the abattoir were not adequately separated from those who were negative. 

They said were divided by a gap of just one metre, working either side of the boning room.

One of the abattoir workers SBS News spoke to unidentified).
One of the abattoir workers SBS News spoke to. Source: SBS

“The positive ones, they take table one to table five, and the negative ones take table six to table 10. But we still go and dine together, we use the same toilets and the same smoking area,” Sam said. 

“The negative ones have yellow hair nets over their helmets so the workers can notice each other.”

“It’s impossible for them to not get COVID-19.”

We still go and dine together, we use the same toilets and the same smoking area.
Sam said the company only increased its PPE after several workers tested positive to the virus.

“We feel like the company isn’t thinking about our health and our families at all.” 

Teys implements isolation policy

Bowing to pressure on Monday afternoon, Teys, the operator of the abattoir and one of the country’s largest meat processors, said all staff would now remain in isolation for seven days if they contracted the COVID-19.

It said in SA from Monday no staff members on-site would have tested positive within the past seven days. 

"Contrary to misleading claims made in the public domain, no worker has been, or will be, forced to work if they are unwell," the company said in a statement.

"In fact, we are specifically instructing our workers not to present for work if they feel unwell or they do not meet the strict requirements of the relevant state health authorities."

The abattoir
Workers claimed positive and negative staff shared facilities at the abattoir. Source: SBS

Teys defended its handling of the outbreak and said it worked strictly according to the requirements of the relevant health authorities across several states.

It told SBS News in a statement: “The health and safety of our people comes first, and we are doing all that we can to respond to the challenges of the pandemic.” 

“SA Health has approved a limited return to work for asymptomatic individuals in critical roles, on the condition they are feeling well and are isolated from other workers. We have put the appropriate controls in place to ensure these conditions are met and will continue to work closely with SA Health and all appropriate authorities as the situation continues to evolve.”

“Our policies and procedures include regular undertaking of rapid antigen tests for all our team … our workforce achieved full vaccination status prior to Christmas and the rollout of booster shots is now underway. We use full PPE whilst in the workplace, practice social distancing, and work to high levels of personal hygiene.”

Woolworths temporarily suspends Teys deal

Supermarket giant Woolworths suspended arrangements with the abattoir at the weekend following a campaign by the meatworkers union, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Association. 

On Saturday, Michele O'Neil, president of the ACTU, called on Woolworths to take action. 

The Teys abattoir
Woolworths has temporarily suspended its deal with the abattoir. Source: SBS

Woolworths said it had not been involved in the decision to allow COVID-19 positive staff to return to work. 

It said it had decided to suspend "all supply through Tey's South Australian facility while we work with Teys, SA Health and Safework SA to understand the protocols currently in place for their team and operations".

On Tuesday afternoon, Woolworths announced it would resume processing at the abattoir this Friday. 

“After consultation with Teys, SA Health and Safework SA we are satisfied that the COVID
management protocols in place at the Naracoorte site meet the relevant health requirements," a spokesperson said. 

Speaking in response to Teys' decision to revert its policy that allowed COVID-19 positive staff to keep working, Ms O'Neil said it was "an important victory for the workers at Teys Naracoorte and working people everywhere".

"Teys is part of Cargill, the world's largest food business, and Woolworths is one of Australia's biggest companies. This was an important stand against big business putting workers health and safety at extreme risk."

‘Let down by government’

The abattoir workers SBS News spoke to say they feel let down by their employer as well as the South Australian health authorities. 

One said they “felt sick in the guts” when they were told they had permission to keep working despite testing positive.  

“I could go back and get someone else sick … I could kill someone and I really didn’t want that …”

“It’s not like we are in the military where there’s an expectation. We process meat.”

“I feel like they all let me down.”

It’s not like we are in the military where there’s an expectation. We process meat. - Abattoir worker
Another worker - who estimated 80 per cent of staff at the facility had now contracted the virus - said health authorities should have gone on site before making the decision. 

“SA Health didn’t come inside the workplace and so they didn’t see what’s going on.”

“SA Health should be very, very careful what they are approving. They should not put our lives in danger, especially our kids.”

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall. Source: AAP

SBS News contacted SA Health for comment on Tuesday. A department spokesperson would not confirm on record the number of COVID-19 cases now linked to the abattoir.

Instead, they said the department had worked in collaboration with Teys "to create a return to work plan that is safe for the workers and the local community, and is in the best interests of animal welfare and critical food supply". 

"The plan includes appropriate PPE, regular RAT testing of workers and site visitors and ensuring only asymptomatic workers who feel well return to work."

"These workers are allowed to leave isolation to work and must not be out in the community until they are cleared from COVID-19."

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said on Monday the Teys management had done a good job managing the outbreak.

"Keep in mind, this was not an Omicron outbreak at Teys, this was an Omicron outbreak in the local community which spread to Teys," he said.

"They've been working very, very closely with SA Health to make sure that they can continue to operate in a risk-managed way.

"It is a difficult situation."

Mr Marshall said it would be disappointing if a major retailer was no longer taking meat from the Naracoorte facility.

But the comments are too little too late for abattoir worker Sam. 

“The thing most of us are upset about is the test confirmed we were positive … but they haven’t told us to go to the doctors and take another test to see if we are positive.”

“No, they just tell us, ‘go inside and work.’”

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- With AAP. 

The image at the top of this article is an artistic representation of the story.