England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Covid-19: demanding Safe Working Conditions for Britain’s Key Food Workers

Key workers around the world are keeping us alive during this pandemic, yet time and time again bosses and capitalist politicians are failing to do anything meaningful to protect their lives. But these workers are beginning to speak out and mobilise against their disgusting treatment.

Earlier this morning a food worker employed by Samworth Brothers (a food manufacturer famous for producing Ginsters products and Melton Mowbray pork pies) spoke to the Bakers Union to blow the whistle on their bosses. Samworth Brothers, which employs over 9,000 workers nationally, has a longstanding reputation for attacking workers’ rights so, for obvious reasons, the employee wished to remain anonymous.

This is what they said:

“A few weeks ago, management started to remind all their workers about us being a very big family, that we care about each other, but now we don’t see this at all. We are just normal workers who have to do our jobs, and we are not treated like family.

“Family protects your members, Samworth don’t. If we were really being treated like a family then management would be concerned about our health and lives… so this is not a family this is more like a dictatorship.”

“I hope that something changes because when I wake up every day my first thoughts are of fear, of having to go to work. The first time I felt like this was just last week. Now all I think about after waking up are the dangerous conditions we have to face at work.”

Like most factories, some limited measures have been taken by Samworth to help protect their workers. These include the enforcement of strict social distancing in their canteen. But on the shop floor things are very different, and as the whistle-blower explained “even when managers see that workers are too close together they do nothing.” If management can’t be bothered to take adequate safety measures they should be shut down for the duration of the pandemic (with workers maintained on full pay), and trade unions should be brought in to ensure that when their sites do reopen that their premises are safe.

Samworth Brothers have also put their staff at risk because they refuse to pay agency workers who are having to self-isolate after exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19. This creates a culture of presenteeism, where workers are compelled to attend, even if ill, because of the threat of a massive loss of pay. It is not as if Samworth cannot afford to put their workers’ needs first. By 2017, Sir David Samworth, who is a Tory donor, had amassed a personal fortune in excess of £500million. Perhaps he might skip this year’s donation to the Tories and use this money to ensure the safety of his employees. Full pay for the duration of the pandemic, whether workers can come to work or not, must be guaranteed. This is a question of basic safety and not doing it will put lives in danger!

But of course, these issues are not unique to Samworth Brothers. Rival food manufacturing company, 2 Sisters Food Group (with a workforce of 20,000+) is also failing to provide basic safety for its workers, as reported in a local newspaper, Eastern Daily, earlier today:

“One worker, who completed his first shift at 2 Sisters in Thetford last week, said he was surprised to spend the shift just half-a-metre from other staff. ‘What struck me was the lack of checks,’ he said. ‘I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people on the line.’… The 2 Sisters worker said he was given protective equipment such as boots, a hairnet and overcoat, but claimed he had no training before he started his shift.” (Eastern Daily Press, April 1)

2 Sisters also have a reputation for poor treatment of workers. Indeed, one of 2 Sisters’ board of directors is Alex Russo, who moonlights as the Chief Finance Officer for the budget supermarket Wilko. Last week, Russo and the rest of the corporate management were forced to backtrack on plans to scrap sick pay for Wilko staff. This was a direct result of shop-floor anger and organisation and clearly shows the way forward for Samworth and 2 Sisters workers.

As ever, there are many difficulties in organising to protect and extend workers’ rights in the food manufacturing sector, but these are not insurmountable by any means.

Only last week Irish food workers employed by ABP Meats and by Linden Foods led successful union walkouts of their factories in defence of safe working conditions in their factories. This is despite the fact that exploitation in many workplaces has been intensified in recent years by the routine use of zero-hour contracts, which is supplemented by the anti-union stance adopted by food bosses.

But the only way that workers can stand-up in defence of their workplace rights is by banding together in trade unions so they can speak with a united voice when bargaining with their employer. Individually questioning workers can always be picked off by management, but when they voice their complaints collectively through the democratic structure of trade unions everything changes, and bosses, no matter how bad, can be forced to make changes that improve the working lives of all workers.

Throughout history it has always been the case that workplace rights have been extended through the struggle of ordinary workers. Thus important lessons can also be drawn from recent trade union victories across the country, including from members of Unite who forced Kent’s Norse Medway to implement coronavirus safety measures for key workers after staff walked out (April 1) – the Norse Group is a facilities contractor employing more than 10,000 people; members of the GMB union who walked out to condemn DHL, which runs a Swindon warehouse on behalf of M&S, for failing to prioritise worker safety (April 1); CWU union members at three Scottish sites, who took industrial action to raise their concerns with poor health and safety arrangements (the most recent walkout took place earlier today in Edinburgh (April 1); Unite members employed by Hackney APCOA Parking who forced their employer to implement safety measures and in the process won a 50% pay increase for working during the health emergency (April 1) – APCOA has more than 4,000 employees across 12 countries; and Unite members at outsourcing giant Amey PLC who forced management to agree to union demands to acknowledge that all its workers in the UK will be fully paid if required to self-isolate due to the coronavirus (March 31) – Amey employs over 17,000 workers across four continents.

Food workers have always deserved more than minimum wage, and now they are once again beginning to fight back and demand they are treated like the key workers that they are. Food workers deserve more than the minimum wage crumbs being offered by their millionaire bosses, which is why it is vital to support them by fighting to raise this minimum wage to £12 a hour, with the aim of raising it to a real living wage of £15 an hour in the very near future. Why should food workers and the rest of the working- lass continue to enrich fat-cat bosses when they treat us with so little respect?

Instead, food workers need to continue to get organised in the workplace, and to join with socialists and trade unionists and help lead the fight for a socialist alternative. The world is ours to win.


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