Work, skills and training in the Australian red meat processing sector

By Kent Norton, Mike Rafferty Research report 11 November 2010 ISBN 978 1 921809 27 9 print; 978 1 921809 26 2 web


Work practices, skill use and the nature of the workforce in the Australian red-meat-processing sector have undergone significant change over the last few decades. This report shows that training in the meat-processing sector is now oriented towards on-the-job induction and the learning of single tasks rather than having a trade-based approach (industrial butcher). This has done nothing to prevent the high rates of labour turnover in the sector, but may play a role in helping workers who are entering or re-entering the paid labour force to move onto other areas of the labour market.


About the research

Work practices in the meat-processing industry have changed in recent years. The industry has moved away from workers dressing a whole carcass towards a chain-based system, with each worker performing a single task along a moving production line.

The nature of the meat-processing workforce has also changed. It is no longer dominated by seasonal but longer-term workers, usually white and male. It is now diverse and often haracterised by workers with low levels of post-secondary education and literacy. Significant pools of labour are temporary (417 visa holders, backpackers and grey nomads), contributing to high levels of staff turnover.

This report investigates what these significant changes have meant for training in the industry.

Key messages

  • Training systems have been adapted to accommodate the new work systems, with training now oriented to on-the-job induction and learning of single tasks.
  • The case studies demonstrated the importance of quality supervision and the building of a safe and supportive culture in the workplace. Improved supervisor training, as well as practices that support workers as teams and individuals, result in safer and less stressful places to work.
  • The training systems accommodate rather than prevent the high rates of labour turnover in the sector. The meat-processing industry employs many workers who are entering or re-entering the paid labour force, and many of these workers move onto other areas of the paid labour market.

This report arises from the second year of a three-year program of research on training and workforce development in industries which are characterised as low-skill entry points to the labour market. Readers may also be interested in an overview of this report, available from

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

This paper reports on a study of work, skills development and training in the red-meat-processing sector. The study involved both a review of this sector as a whole and several detailed case studies. It finds that changes in the competitive conditions, ownership structure and industrial conditions in the Australian red-meat industry have been influencing how meat-processing work is performed, how skills are being developed and used, as well as who is attracted to the industry and how long they stay.

Changes in the Australian meat-processing industry

The red-meat-processing sector in Australia has undergone some profound changes over the last three decades. These have had, and continue to have, important consequences for the nature of work, skills and training. Key changes in the meat-processing sector over the last 30 years have included:

  • Changing supply chain dynamics, market orientation and ownership structures have all been important in driving a greater focus on cost and quality control.
  • The industry has responded to the changes of the last 30 years at a number of levels. There are now far fewer but larger processing sites, and meat-processing firms often own multiple processing sites, as well as activities up and down the value chain. There has also been a concerted effort to secure consistent input supply (including the growth of the feedlot industry and better transport logistics).
  • Meat processors have also adopted a strong focus on quality control. The Australian industry has emerged as a leading exporter of processed meat, with a hard-earned reputation for hygiene and quality.
  • One area of particular focus has been labour relations and control over work processes and practices. The earlier system of industrial relations (embodied in, among other things, the 'tally' system) meant that workers had a great deal of control over how they did their work. After a protracted period of disputation and changes to job design, management now has much more control over all aspects of work, payment systems, skills formation and use.
  • Despite many attempts to mechanise, meat-processing work remains relatively labour-intensive and is physically demanding and sometimes dangerous.
  • Work practices and skill utilisation have changed. In contrast to earlier work processes, where teams of workers would dress a whole carcass at a time (a sort of industrialised butchering trade), the industry has moved to a chain-based system, with each worker now performing a single task (such as a single cut) along a moving dis-assembly line. Workers performing these tasks will over time gain training in other tasks and may rotate to other tasks. Some work in teams (or rooms); others do not. But the skill requirements of meat processing are now less of a trade and more and more a collection of task-based competencies. Along with changes in industrial relations, this task specialisation of work has made jobs in meat processing relatively less attractive.
  • Related to the developments above, the nature of the meat-processing workforce has also changed significantly. It has proved difficult to attract and retain many of the sorts of workers who populated meat-processing sites in the past, both because the size of individual plants as grown (larger processing capacity and the introduction of second shifts) and the increased relative attractiveness of other occupations (in terms of pay and occupational status). The workforce is no longer dominated by seasonal, but longer-term, workers, usually white and male. The workforce is now diverse across many dimensions and subject to high levels of turnover. Consequently, meat-processing firms now draw labour from many different sources and from diverse backgrounds. The sector is often characterised by workers with low levels of post-secondary education and low levels of literacy (especially in the case of workers from abroad, creating a need for multilingual approaches to training and supervision). By their nature, some of these pools of labour are temporary (417 visa holders, backpackers and grey nomads), but all sources of labour experience quite high levels of turnover.

Training and workforce development in the meatprocessing sector

The changes in the meat-processing industry described above have influenced the training and workforce development in the sector. Key findings from this research show:

  • Training systems have adapted to accommodate the new work systems, the types of labour entering the meat-processing workforce, the new demands on skill development, and the high rate of labour turnover.
  • Training is now oriented to on-the-job induction/learning of single tasks, and these task competencies (say, in slicing and/or boning) are then assembled into formal qualifications (certificates II and III). The industry has developed a comprehensive training package across many areas of meat-processing work, which seems to be widely used throughout the industry. These training initiatives have been successful in helping to address issues of orkplace diversity (including issues such as the diverse language and cultural backgrounds of workers). They have also been critical to addressing the challenges of improving productivity, safety and flexibility. The training systems have not, however, prevented high rates of labour turnover from becoming the industry norm.
  • The case studies provided strong support to back the sector's work on improving the social
    development of workplaces, especially in terms of the quality of supervision and the building of a safe and supportive culture in the workplace. We found that improved supervisor training, as well as practices that support workers as teams and individuals, seem to result in safer, less stressful and more attractive places to work. These are also workplaces that can accommodate the wider and more diverse pools of labour now available for running large processing plants in conditions of labour shortage.
  • While the industry has many traineeships, and training systems are more formalised and extensive (with attention turning to rebuilding the idea of a career or vocation in the sector), there is a fairly low completion rate for traineeships. In the context of high turnover, posttraineeship utilisation rates are also low. This appears to be a legacy of the flows of labour going through the sector and the types of jobs currently on offer, rather than the particular attributes of training (enterprise registered training organisation vs TAFE college) per se. It is possible to identify a tension between the continual churn in the sector's labour pool and the changing flows of labour into and out of the sector. The sector has a model of training that seems to accommodate the sector's high labour turnover. Meat processing also employs many workers entering or re-entering the paid labour force and who are being deployed to a very demanding work process, in terms of safety, hygiene and product quality. Much of that labour may then flow to other areas of the paid labour market. This tension between managing these labour flows as labour churn on one hand, and reflecting the sector's new role of providing an early port of entry (and re-entry) from unpaid to paid labour and harnessing temporary labour pools (both for the sector and the wider labour market) on the other, is unresolved and still being played out. Thinking about the industry's evolving supply and utilisation of skills (and the risks associated with them) in this way is useful for setting up the next phase of the research, which is concerned with the role of vocational education and training (VET) in increasing workforce participation.

Broader findings

The study concludes with five general findings, which may be applicable to other industries:

  1. Supply chain and cost pressures on firms can increase trends towards task specialisation in process industries. This leads to training becoming more narrowly (competency) focused and consequently shorter, making it more amenable to being delivered on the job. This supply chain pressure is particularly pertinent in the meat-processing industry in Australia because of the dominance of two large retail chains.
  2. The undermining of industrial conditions and job skill requirements can in turn reduce the attractiveness of such work, leading to higher labour turnover. In conditions of labour shortage and turnover, this will often force employers to more or less continually look for new sources of labour.
  3. Cost pressures may encourage task specialisation and reduce the attractiveness of the work. Furthermore, when the workforce is more transient or temporary, jobs will tend to be broken down into work that is quick to learn, enabling training to be kept to a minimum.
  4. As firms grow, dedicated (often in-house) training arrangements become more financially viable and are preferred, especially where government training funding is offered to the provider.
  5. Supervisors and on-the-job trainers play a major role in modelling good work practices and in supporting a learning culture at work. Vocational education and training can play an important role in developing better supervisors and trainers and their capacity to facilitate that supportive learning environment.


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