Saturday, 13 March 2010

Equality and Human Rights Commission exposes abuse of workers

This article is cross-posted at Counterfire:

A new study reveals shocking levels of bullying and abuse of low-paid workers in the food production industry. The inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reports that a third of workers in the industry have either witnessed or experienced verbal abuse. An alarming 20% of those interviewed reported personal experience of being kicked, pushed or having things thrown at them. Overall, the report presents a picture of widespread verbal and sometimes physical abuse, combined with frequently appalling working conditions.

The EHRC reports employers breaking the law, including examples of workers being forced to do double shifts while tired or ill that contravene the law. There are also many examples of practices described by the EHRC as a "clear affront to respect and dignity". These abuses are taking place in factories that supply major UK supermarkets. Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary of the Unite union, has said that "Britain's supermarkets should hang their heads in shame".

Meat factory workers have had frozen burgers thrown at them by line managers. Women with heavy periods and people with bladder problems on production lines have been denied toilet breaks. These are examples of a wider culture of mistreatment of mainly agency workers, a high proportion of whom are migrants. The injustice of low pay - while the supermarkets they supply make huge profits - is accompanied by poor conditions and inhumane treatment.

Jack Dromey says: "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."

The impression of a two-tier workforce is supported by the testimony of the 260 workers who were interviewed for the study. More than 80% of them reported that agency workers are treated worse than directly employed staff. Workers on permanent contracts can suffer mistreament - it's just even worse for those in precarious employment. Migrant workers are disproportinately affected, as two-thirds of agency workers in the industry are migrants.

Neil Kinghan of EHRC says: "Some workers feel they have little choice but to put up with these conditions out of economic necessity. Others lack 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 commission makes modest proposals, which include suggesting that workers are paid for travelling time and engaging workers on employment contracts rather than "contracts for services". These will be resisted by employers: Mark Boleat, chairman of the mis-named employers' organisation Association of Labour Providers, has denounced EHRC proposals as unworkable. Employers are determined to maintain a profitable system of employing workers on low pay and precarious contracts, with few rights and in poor conditions.

Counterfire believes justice for migrant workers, and all other workers in the food industry, requires fair pay, improved working conditions, secure contracts and a determined effort to stamp out the abuses reported today. Trade unions must make a determined effort to organise some of the most exploited and ill-treated workers in Britain, and work with others to build a broader campaign for pay justice and migrant rights.

A slightly adapted version of this appears at Counterfire.

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