Page last updated at 05:55 GMT, Saturday, 13 March 2010

Migrant and agency meat workers 'exploited'

A poultry worker
Many workers do not fully understand their rights, the EHRC says

An inquiry into the treatment of agency and migrant staff at meat and poultry processing firms has found "widespread evidence" of abuse and exploitation.

The abuse was both verbal and physical, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported.

It also found a lack of proper health and safety protection and said workers often did not know all their rights.

Retailers and labour providers said they would be studying the findings to see where improvements could be made.

Stories of abuse

However, the chairman of the Association of Labour Providers, Mark Boleat, was also quoted by the Guardian as questioning the inquiry's methodology and whether the surveyed workers were a representative sample.

CASE STUDY
Agnes Gnosowska, 29, is a Polish national who lives in Thetford, in Norfolk.

She has previously worked in a meat factory and says such jobs are the "only choice" for many unskilled workers from Eastern Europe, particularly those who do not speak English.

"In Eastern Europe some salaries are so low that you can't survive," she says.

So they come here, but if they don't have specific skills or speak the language then they don't have another option but to do this kind of work."

The EHRC's inquiry, launched in 2008, found that migrant workers are most affected, but British agency employees face similar mistreatment, with many people afraid to raise concerns because they fear they will be sacked.

The commission said its inquiry had uncovered frequent breaches of the law and licensing standards in meat processing factories.

Some of these factories supplied the UK's biggest supermarkets.

However, the commission, which called for steps to protect the workforce and for supermarkets to improve the auditing of their suppliers, said it had also found examples of firms that treated all workers with respect and dignity.

The inquiry, which spoke to 260 workers, found:

• One in five workers said they had been pushed, kicked or had things thrown at them by line managers

• A third revealed they had experienced or witnessed verbal abuse, often on a daily basis

• Workers also claimed they had been refused permission to go to the toilet

• One in four told the commission that pregnant workers had been mistreated, including the instant dismissal of agency workers who announced they were having a baby

A third of permanent workers and two-thirds of agency workers in the industry are migrants, and at one in six meat processing sites involved in the study, every agency worker hired in the past year was a migrant worker.

These recruitment figures are partly due to difficulties in recruiting British workers for physically demanding but low-paid work, the EHRC said.

Many workers who gave evidence to the commission said agency workers were treated worse than directly employed staff.

Supermarkets have driven down costs along their supply chain with tens of thousands of workers paying the price, suffering discrimination and unfair treatment
Jack Dromey, Unite

Neil Kinghan, director general of the EHRC, said: "The commission's inquiry reveals widespread and significant ill-treatment in the industry.

"We have heard stories of workers subjected to bullying, violence and being humiliated and degraded by being denied toilet breaks."

He said that some workers felt they had to put up with these conditions out of economic necessity, while others lacked the language skills to understand and assert their rights.

"While most supermarkets are carrying out audits of their suppliers, our evidence shows that these audits are not safeguarding workers and they clearly need to take steps to improve them.

"The processing firms themselves and the agencies supplying their workers also need to pay more than lip service to ensuring that workers are not subjected to unlawful and unethical treatment.

"If the situation does not improve over the next 12 months, the commission will consider using its regulatory powers to enforce change where necessary."

'Two-tier market'

Jack Dromey, of the union Unite, said supermarkets supplied by the plants should "hang their heads in shame".

He said: "Supermarkets have driven down costs along their supply chain with tens of thousands of workers paying the price, suffering discrimination and unfair treatment.

"A two-tier labour market has been created, exploiting migrant agency workers on poorer conditions of employment and undercutting directly employed workers on better conditions of employment.

"That divides workforces and damages social cohesion in local communities."

A spokesman for the Association of Labour Providers said: "The recommendations merit careful study by government, regulators, supermarkets, labour providers and labour users.

"Some of the recommendations, such as paying workers for travelling time and engaging workers on contracts of employment rather than contracts for services, are not possible unless there is a commitment from retailers and labour users to meet such costs, and past experience suggests that this is unlikely."

Tom Ironside, from the British Retail Consortium, said it took the findings very seriously.

"The commission does recognise supermarkets are committing significant time and resources to these audits, but if there are ways to improve them, then obviously we'll be giving those careful consideration," he said.



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Meat firm sheds workers
20 Jan 09 |  England
Sliced meat firm axing 300 jobs
07 Jan 09 |  Merseyside
Meat worker death was accidental
30 Oct 08 |  Norfolk
End of the line for meat workers
26 Apr 07 |  Wiltshire
Meat process workers plan strike
05 May 05 |  Suffolk

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific