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March 15, 2010

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Meat-processing industry in firing line over worker mistreatment

Pregnant workers being forced to endure heavy lifting, workers urinating on themselves after being prevented from visiting the toilet, and managers throwing frozen hamburgers at staff are some of the examples of mistreatment uncovered by an inquiry into the meat and poultry processing sector.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which launched its investigation in October 2008, scrutinised the sector to identify differences in working conditions and pay between agency and temporary workers and permanent employees, or those who are directly employed.

One third of the permanent workforce and more than two thirds of agency workers in the industry are migrant workers. More than eight out of ten of the 260 workers who gave evidence said agency workers are treated worse than directly-employed workers.

The inquiry uncovered frequent breaches of the law and licensing standards by meat-processing factories – some of which supply the UK’s biggest supermarkets – and the agencies that supply workers to them. It also highlighted conditions that flout minimum ethical trading standards and basic human rights. The inquiry also found examples of good practice, however, and made special mention of Bernard Matthews as an employer that treated permanent and agency workers of all nationalities with respect.

One in six interviewees highlighted health and safety as an area where agency workers received worse treatment. The main issues surrounded PPE, and included:
• poor-quality and ill-fitting PPE – such as gloves that easily split;
• lack of appropriate PPE – such as warm clothing for workers in cold areas, or protective gloves for people working with knives and frozen products;
• and sharing PPE – having to share wet, sweaty, or soiled overalls and boots that had not been cleaned or dried between shifts.

Workers spoke of pains in the limbs and extreme fatigue, partly due to the lack of job rotation, which meant they had to carry out repetitive tasks on fast-moving production lines for long periods. Only three in five firms said their business provides the agency with a health and safety risk assessment of the relevant job roles before using staff – despite it being mandatory to ensure agency workers are placed in a safe environment.

A quarter of those interviewed pointed to mistreatment of pregnant workers, with some of these women forced to continue to undertake work that posed risks to their health and safety, including heavy lifting and extended periods of standing. Some agency staff were given no further work after managers realised they were pregnant.

Physical and verbal abuse were not uncommon, with a fifth of workers interviewed reporting being pushed, kicked, or managers throwing things at them – including frozen burgers. Workers also reported being refused permission to take toilet breaks, and subsequently urinating, or bleeding on themselves at the production line.

Consequently, the Commission has made a number of recommendations. They include:
• Processing firms and agencies to provide workers with a safe working environment free from discrimination and harassment, where they are able to raise issues of concern without fear of the consequences;
• Supermarkets to improve their support to, and auditing of, suppliers; and
• Government to provide sufficient resources for the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (GLA) to help safeguard the welfare and interests of workers, and broaden its remit to include other sectors where low-paid agency workers are at risk of exploitation.

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. 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.”

He added: “If the situation does not improve over the next 12 months, the Commission will consider using its regulatory powers to enforce change where necessary.”

Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processing Association, told SHP: “The instances of illegal, unethical, unfair and degrading practices, which the report has found in some parts of the industry, are completely unacceptable in a modern food industry and in our society.

“While the report also highlighted good practices in other parts of the industry, the issues raised by the report are a matter of concern to everyone in the industry. The BMPA and its members will want to engage with the EHRC, other relevant agencies, and with other parts of industry, to address these important issues.”

Union bodies were scathing of the report’s findings. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “The report raises a number of issues that must be addressed immediately – the finding that pregnant women are forced to stand for long periods without a break is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Employers that fail to deal with these health hazards are breaking the law. We hope the HSE will urgently look at the health, safety and welfare regime in these workplaces.”

Unite deputy general secretary, Jack Dromey, commented: “The EHRC report exposes labour practices in the supermarket supply chain that are an affront to human decency – physical and verbal abuse, a lack of health and safety protection, shameful treatment of pregnant women, and a culture of fear. The report says, and rightly so, that there are reputable employers but they are undercut by the rogues.”

He continued: “The message from the EHRC is unmistakable. The meat industry must change and all supermarkets should accept their responsibility. All workers doing the same job should enjoy equal treatment. All workers should be treated with respect, and there should be no second-class citizen in 21st-century Britain.”

The EHRC report is available at

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