Workers in Oakey Beef Exports boning and packing room. There are more than 300 people employed within this section of the business.
Workers in Oakey Beef Exports boning and packing room. There are more than 300 people employed within this section of the business. Andrea Davy

WATCH: Take a tour inside Oakey Beef

TAKING a job at the local abattoir went against the career advice Pat Gleeson was given as a schoolboy.

"I was told, 'If you are not good in school, you will end up working in the meatworks'," he said.

"Well, it's the best thing that has ever happened to me."

Now, after forging a 23-year career with Oakey Beef Exports, working his way right to the top as general manager, Mr Gleeson encouraged more people to consider a career in the red meat sector.

He started out as an apprentice butcher in Toowoomba when he was 15, climbing the ranks to now oversee the Oakey plant, as well as the Thomas Borthwick and Sons abattoir in Mackay.

Last week Oakey Beef Exports, which is located 30km outside Toowoomba, welcomed the community to its open day.

Guests toured the facility in its entirety, from learning about the company's biogas plant, to watching boners slice carcases and walking right through to the kill floor.

Mr Gleeson stressed his industry had nothing to hide.

The open day was part of the Australian Meat Processor Corporation's Meat Your Future campaign.

Mr Gleeson said it was up to industry members to dispel any false myths, like the ones he heard as a young man, about careers in the red meat sector.

"I think back when I started, it was considered a real blokey industry, but now it has changed," he said.

"We have close to 50% females here, so it's a good mix.

"And with the expansion into science and innovation into smart technology, there are so many opportunities going forward."

Mr Gleeson stressed it was essential for all meatworks to invest in their local communities.

He was proud to state Oakey Beef Exports had no 417 backpacker visa holders employed.

Not mincing his words, he said when other meatworks chose to hire temporary overseas employees they were "taking the easy way out".

"Everyone has their own challenges for where the facility is located," he said.

"But I cannot get my head around why we have to employ 417s when we have an unemployment problem in areas.

"It's up to us to engage with them and let them know there are jobs available. It has to be our priority."

He described Oakey Beef Exports as being somewhat like a theme park at times, with different schools and groups arriving for site tours.

"They are a bit of a hassle logistically but I think it's imperative to our industry that we are more open with what we do," he said.

"We need to break down mythologies."

Mr Gleeson said he could "100% guarantee" that guests touring the facility would leave with a different perspective than when they walked in.

And, after dressing in safety pants, shirts, hairnets, booties and masks, it's fair to say he was right.

Guests were impressed by how much automation was used in the facility, particularly in the labour-intensive boning rooms.

More than 300 people are employed in this space of the plant. Qualified boners stand on automatic platforms that rise and fall at the touch of a pedal, which ensures the operator is never reaching too high or too low when cutting the carcasses.


OAKEY Beef Exports' Josh Hayes started his market snapshot presentation at the abattoir's open day with a question.

"What percentage does Oakey Beef contribute to the national beef production?" he asked.

By that stage participants knew the Oakey abattoir hired more than 700 people, killed five days a week and had the capability to process more than a 1000 head per day.

So answers of 25%, 30% were tossed about - it seemed like big business.

"It's actually only 4%," Mr Hayes said.

"That goes to show just how big the beef industry is in Australia."

Parent company Nipponham Group, which also owns abattoirs Thomas Borthwick and Sons in Mackay and Wingham Beef Exports in New South Wales, represents 7% of Australia's beef production.

While the majority of Oakey's beef is exported, some is sold domestically, including prime cuts that are bought by nearby restaurant Grumpy Steakhouse in Toowoomba.


The business is registered to sell to 38 countries, but at the moment is mostly exporting to 12.

The plant is already utilising the Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport, flying one tonne of beef per week to China.

Mr Hayes described the red meat sector as constantly evolving, and predicted the way meat is sold would continue to change.

"If you came to this facility, or any facility, 15 to 25 years ago, you would have seen they broke the carcase down into as few pieces as possible," he said.

"The meat was then sent on for further processing by butchers and restaurateurs."

Mr Hayes said there was growing demand for further processing by abattoirs, which eventually could cut out the middle man and see consumers get a better price.

"It reduces labour on the other end, and the customer will get a product that's easier to work with," he said.

Breaking the carcase down further also created the opportunity to sell shelf-ready products, he said.


Oakey Beef Export's Josh Hayes talked through the exporting opportunities for the company.
Oakey Beef Export's Josh Hayes talked through the exporting opportunities for the company. Andrea Davy

From an industry perspective, Mr Hayes said it was essential Australian producers maintained their reputation for high quality.

"At the end of the day, if our beef isn't the best in the world, no one will buy it because it's too expensive," he said.

"Our biggest factors are the US and South America, as they can afford wages lower than us."

As a broad rule of thumb, abattoir workers in the US could earn as little as $16 per hour, while Australians are paid upwards of $30 of an hour.

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