After a major outbreak of almost 300 covid-19 infections at a Greencore food production site in Northampton, action by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) successfully forced the bosses to close the site. Although a victory for common sense and safety, families have now been thrown into poverty, forced to rely on foodbanks and charity, as the multi-million-pound company refuses to pay its workers what they deserve.
Throughout the pandemic, one of the key demands that BFAWU has raised nationally, and locally in Northampton, is that all workers should be entitled to full sick pay if they have to self-isolate for any reason relating to the pandemic. Greencore’s bosses have consistently opposed this fair treatment. Initially, self-isolating workers were forced onto a miserly £95.85 a week Statutory Sick Pay. This undoubtedly played a big role in helping spread the infection inside the factory, with workers incentivised to attend work even if showing COVID symptoms. But with the closure, and under pressure from the union, Greencore have now been forced to put around 2,000 of their workers on furlough – so the government is now paying 80% of their salaries.
This is a step in the right direction, but the company must now be made to pay the remaining 20%. As it is, 60% of the workforce will be left below the minimum wage, leaving them reliant on foodbanks and struggling to make ends meet. Greencore are a cash-rich business – only last year they posted £56.4 million pre-tax profits. They can easily afford this!
As the Bakers Union, we have started a petition to mount pressure on Greencore bosses:
“The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union calls on Greencore to pay 100% sick pay to all 2,100 Greencore employees in Northampton who have been sent home to self-isolate in the Covid19 crisis. The company, Europe’s leading sandwich maker, supplier to M&S, has put staff on furlough. So the government is paying 80% of the salary bill. The company has refused to provide the 20% top-up. This despite posting £56.4 million pre-tax profits last year. 292 of the Northampton workforce tested positive for Covid-19 last week, resulting in the factory’s temporary closure. Employees were furloughed and sent home to self-isolate for 14 days. They’re carrying the burden of the Covid-19 outbreak.”
Please also watch this video of a BFAWU rep explaining why we need support.
Greencore outbreak: a timeline of negligence
So, what do we know about the Greencore outbreak? First of all, we know that eight staff tested positive in the last week of July, and it was subsequently reported that a further nine people (mostly managers who had attended a BBQ together) tested positive on August 3. A very significant outbreak!
At this stage, the spread of COVID-19 had remained low in Northampton as a whole – an area which is home to around 225,000 people. Northampton had a total of just 1,340 people testing positive with the virus since the start of the pandemic up to August 3! But Greencore managers and Public Health England refused to nip this significant outbreak in the bud.
Instead of dealing with this threat to their workers, Greencore managers simply directed staff to get tested by the NHS, which eventually (after a week) revealed further cases: “By August 10, 24 positive cases had been reported through NHS testing.” By this point, Greencore bosses realised they had a serious problem on their hands. On August 10, 11 and 12 they supervised the workplace testing of around 1,200 of their employees. It was then revealed that a colossal 292 workers were positive with COVID-19 at this one site!
What was the initial response of Greencore bosses? They released a public statement (August 13) describing the dangerous outbreak as a “rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Northampton area”. They went on: “we are doing everything that we can to keep our people safe. As ever, the health and well-being of our colleagues is our number one priority.” If “the health and well-being” of their colleagues was really a concern, their doors would have already closed with workers on full pay.
Northampton town, at this point, had the highest number of new cases in England per 100,000 people. But this was not about a town; it was about a factory. Of the total 292 positive cases at Greencore, 79 individuals were identified by NHS testing and 213 cases by the on-site workplace testing. Significantly, the total number of positive cases reported across all of Northampton during this three-day testing period was 238. The virus spread was mainly limited to the Greencore site.
The only thing more ludicrous than the Greencore statement was the adjoining statement issued by Tory-led Northampton Borough Council and Public Health Northamptonshire, where once again the blame for the outbreak was shifted to workers not the bosses: “Greencore has highly effective measures in place and they continue to work extremely hard to exceed the requirements needed to be COVID-19 secure within the workplace.” The director of public health at Northamptonshire County Council, Lucy Wightman, was understandably criticised for saying that the outbreak was “about how people behave outside of Greencore, not at work” (August 13).
Greencore was finally forced to close on August 21 – weeks later than it should have done. The BBC, and much of the press claim, that this was ‘voluntary’, but the truth is that it was the union that won this important victory for health and safety. However, low paid key workers at Greencore, who have put themselves at so much risk throughout the pandemic, now face poverty because of the greed of Greencore bosses.
Socialist Alternative says:
- For 100% sick pay for all workers. If the bosses say they cannot afford to pay their workers sick pay, then they should open to books to financial inspection by the trade unions to see where savings can be made
- For immediate trade union recognition at ALL Greencore sites
- For a minimum £15 an hour wage for all workers
- No sickness absence monitoring to be undertaken during this period