I'd just been sacked from my dishwashing job at a vegetarian café in Mullumbimby and was considering killing chickens in Byron Bay. I wasn't actually going to be slitting their throats—that was up to the killers, men who proved themselves through six months of grunt work on the factory floor. I would however play a more active role in their deaths than I had ever wanted to. I was 19, had minimal direction, no conventional aspirations and just enough naïve optimism to go through with it. I seldom worried about the environment or the government. The Howard era was over, university wasn't waiting, and in Northern NSW youth unemployment was pushing 10 percent. I needed some vocational experience. Most of all, I needed a paycheque.
Sunnybrand: the ironic and purposefully-vague name of the Byron Bay chicken factory (until Ingham bought it in 2011, promptly sacking 70 staff via SMS). I worked there in 2009 when it employed almost 300, a figure that was recalculated daily due to profuse employee turnover. Sunnybrand, for many of us, was a last ditch attempt at local employment before giving in and moving to the city.
The job interview was pathetic and sad. He looked me over, noted my collared shirt with a nod, and warned me that the work would be repetitive. Not many people stuck around he said, but did I reckon I could handle it?
The interview finished when I agreed to take the job. The cluster of men I'd seen in the waiting room beforehand were all hired and inducted on the same Monday. We started work Tuesday. Of the nine men who were employed that day, seven would be gone before week's end. Necessity dictated that I was one of the stayers.
I worked in the back corner, near the loading dock where the boxes were stacked on pallets for distribution. I was lucky to be posted in this section, I was told, because we rarely handled raw meat. A high-speed conveyer belt rotated above us, automatically flicking cuts of chicken into overhead tubs. Once a tub was filled to capacity (20 kg), a red button lit up. Our job was to position a box, hit the button, let the heap of meat slop down into it, close the box, and stack it on a pallet.
Occasionally, when rendered insensible by repetition or physical exhaustion, box and chute would be misaligned and slimy chicken would slither across the factory line. The mess was brushed onto the floor and left there. At the end of each day I would sweep the wasted meat into a heap and shovel it into a dumpster outside.
The prevalence of obviously diseased meat was largely ignored. Green cysts permeated cuts of chicken, particularly the breasts and necks. Often, while closing a box of fillets, I'd see a neon-green tumour glowing from within. Technically we were supposed to remove the green cuts and throw them on the floor but colleagues assured me that I shouldn't bother. Nobody checked whether you did it or not and most of the men felt they weren't being paid enough to worry about such details.
Though some warned me of quality control officers, I never saw one. They were treated like ticket enforcers: lowlifes with just enough authority to punish, yet completely disrespected. Their job was to snitch on the rest of us. Given most would prefer work on the kill floor than snitch, quality control officers were deemed slightly less expendable than the rest of us.
Most humans entering the factory were so disgusted by the sight of all those dead birds—the acrid chemical odour and the pervasive cold (the whole factory was refrigerated)—that they quit soon after. Those who handled the wretchedness then faced the challenge of fitting in, something I never achieved.
Women were greatly outnumbered on the factory floor, but two distinct female cliques were recognisable. There was the white, middle-aged variety: lower-working-class mums, the wives of cops and concreters; probably with brick houses and plasma-screen televisions. Their duties consisted of slicing low-grade cuts, assembling skewers, and marinating meat in honey-soy or teriyaki. These were the type to use the staff discount and buy a Sunnybrand chicken for Sunday roast.
The other group were young and attractive Southeast Asian women: the wives of miners, commercial fisherman, and truckies. Lovely and sincere, they were treated with friendliness and respect by all. They did grunt work, the particularly repetitive and low priority jobs. Sometimes they'd spend a whole day ripping skins off chicken carcasses for stock cubes.
Men, mostly white and unqualified, made up the rest of the factory floor. The most physically demanding section was worked by a mob of young football players: big dim lads from farms. They were the first to handle the birds after they came from the kill floor (a segregated section). They had to grab carcasses from a conveyer belt and hang them by their feet on a high-speed rotating rack. They sought amusement through harassment: scratching another man's ear with a severed chicken foot or shoving a wad of slimy chicken necks down his collar.
The clean-up crew seemed to be reserved for those who'd previously been incarcerated. Though I never asked them directly, they had the telltale indicators: they wore bushy grey beards and face tattoos and smoked White-Ox. They were old and hardened and kept to themselves.
The rest of us fell somewhere between the louts and quiet criminals. All except the killers; they were a different breed.
The kill room was forbidden to all but those who worked inside it. They earned a higher base wage but rumour had it that most people, when offered a promotion to the role of killer, refused. Too much blood, they said. The chooks that survived the electrocution and drowning systems had to have their throats slit by hand.
Before knowing who they were, you could tell there was something ominous and intimidating about them. They held an edginess that suggested unrestrained violence. They continually used the word "cunt" to refer to objects and people: to each other, to women, to the birds they killed, to unknown staff members and strangers. Everything surrounding them was a cunt and their tolerance for cunts was scarce. They understood the world as an ugly and sinister place and wasted no time on optimism or faith. More than anything, they seemed to lack empathy. Nihilism subverted only by self-interest.
After two paycheques I considered that my mental health was at serious risk. Each night I dreamed I was still there, still working. The chemical smells, diseased meat, and repetition were horrible, but it was the culture that I couldn't handle. Nobody seemed to care about anything except inane anecdotes and Friday afternoon. But the weekends rarely brought the fulfilment they longed for, making Monday even more fraught with pessimism and self-loathing. I had become emotional, frustrated, and sought escape through intoxication. Alcohol, once celebratory, was straying towards a tool for escapism. I wondered if I could scrape together the petrol money to get to Sydney and sleep on friends' couches until I found another job.
I spent a drunken night on the beach with friends, stayed up until the sun rose over the Pacific, called Sunnybrand, and left a message: "I won't be in today, or ever again for that matter..."
Then I hung up.
Illustrations by Katie Parrish Gandrabur
Follow Nat on Twitter: @natkassel