Like health workers, food manufacturing workers are “key workers” who continue to work unsociable hours in a high-pressure environment for the lowest of pay. But why should the workers who feed us only get paid the minimum wage while the bosses of the huge corporations that employ them make millions? This is the toxic logic of the capitalist system, a broken system that leaches profit form our hard labour and is unwilling to share these gains with the workers who generate them.
That is why we need to fight for a socialist alternative in which food workers are treated as the key workers that they truly are! Afterall, why should our key food workers have to demand that their bosses take action to prevent the spread of coronavirus? Because this is exactly what poorly paid food workers are having to do! Thus, earlier this week we saw Irish employees of the ABP Food Group stage militant union walkouts in defence of their basic human right to a safe working environment.
Of course it is an indictment of the current political system that any worker should ever have to demand to be treated like a human, but the fact that the sanctity of workers’ lives always seems to come behind profits is why people continue to join trade unions to collectively fight to protect their rights. Socialists always support such organising efforts, but ultimately socialists also believe that a simpler method of sharing the wealth of society amongst all of us, instead of allowing the super-rich to hoard it all, is to get rid of the capitalist system itself.
One thing we can be sure of though is that the gap between the billionaire-class and the working-class, the haves and the have-nots, continues to grow by the day. So, while factory workers scrape by on minimum wage, the newly appointed chairman of ABP Food Group. John Moloney, last year earnt nearly £0.5million, not through engaging in hard work, like his staff, but by networking on the board rooms of three powerful companies (these being, the Irish health/energy profiteer DCC plc, the global paper manufacturer Smurfit Kappa, and the food manufacturer Greencore).
Although Moloney has just retired from Greencore’s board room so he could join ABP Food Group’s board of directors, one thing remains consistent, and that is the poor treatment of the workers at both major food manufacturers.
Only three days ago, Greencore were, like ABP, exposed in the press for treating their employees with utter contempt. One worker who is based at Greencore’s site in Northampton explained how as a result of a downturn in necessary production, management had “put workers on the back burner” with some worker having “been sent home when they turned up for their night shift” while others had “been sent home without pay.”
Letting management have the right of response the newspaper article in question then went on to state: “Greencore says any employees who cannot work will receive at least statutory sick pay, depending on what their contract states.” But why should any key workers earning the minimum wage be forced to try to live off £94 a week when they were already risking their lives to come into work to feed the nation? I say risking their lives because Greencore continue to refuse to take anyway near decent precautions to promote social distancing amongst their employees, whether this be on the production line or on the buses that transport their low-paid employees to work. This lack of respect is exemplified by the treatment of a lorry driver earlier this week, who while delivering food to Greencore’s Wisbech site in Cambridgeshire was told by a manager “not to come back” simply because he had asked for hand sanitiser!
There is a good reason why the Bakers Union have taken to referring to the company as MeanCore.
This appalling treatment of key workers is unfortunately all too common in the food industry, and another notable leader in promoting such abuse is Bakkavor Foods, whose contempt for the low pay of their staff led their employees (at their Spalding site in Lincolnshire) to ballot for strike action at the end of last year. This ballot took place when Bakkavor offered their workers a paltry 1.5 per cent pay offer after posting £105 million in pre-tax profits. At the time Unite regional officer Mick Orpin pointed out how:
“Bosses at Bakkavor have absolutely no justification for suppressing workers’ pay year on year when the company has increased its profits year on year. Between 2014 and 2018 Bakkavor’s profits have increased by a massive £40 million but management has left hard-up workers with no choice except to take strike action to fight for their fair share.”
Here we should be thankful for victories whenever they come, and the threat of strike action forced their greedy employer to increase their pay offer to 2.5% (which union members then reluctantly accepted even though it was no way near enough).
Yet with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc with peoples lives, Bakkavor like many other food processors is refusing to take the threat posed to their workers and their families lives seriously. Thus umpteen reports are now coming out of Bakkavor’s factories that management are still not taking the necessary precautions to allow social distancing to become a reality; unless of course you include the social distance that managers are putting between their front-line workers and themselves; with managers happily ensconced in their offices or working from home. As one shop floor worker put it earlier today:
“I think a lot of people do not feel safe at work right now. People are frightened of the virus and frightened of the repercussions of speaking out. We do not see the management in our factory, they are shut away in an office upstairs and mostly don’t even acknowledge us if you happen to encounter them so they are hardly going to give two hoots when we are “moaning” again. The spike of this pandemic is coming our way and so time is short, we see the temporary morgues being built and the places being turned into emergency hospitals on the news every day, we are being told every day to stay at home but we go to work and everything carries on as normal , apart from sanitizer posts , and a couple of other bit. I feel that going to work is like having a gun held to my head and someone playing Russian roulette with me.”
Again, workers faced with loss of pay, and the imminent threat posed by trying to live off £94 a week, are being effectively coerced into work even when conditions are dangerous especially when their own family members are at risk. As another worker put it: “How about social distancing when working on the [Bakkavor production] lines and we are barely 50 cm apart from each other? Often we get agency [staff], everyday different person working in different factories each day who can potentially contract Covid-19 even faster.”
What has been clear all along is that no worker should have to work under such horrifying conditions. The entire food manufacturing industry must immediately take the necessary measures, whatever the cost, to ensure that our key workers are safe, whether that is in the workplace, or at home on full pay for the duration of the pandemic. To do anything less is unacceptable, and if the bosses won’t listen then workers will have to engage in walkouts to force their bosses to take the future of their lives seriously, and of those in our communities who may die as a result of food industries prioritising of profits over public health.
If you want to find out more about a socialist response to the COVID-19 crisis watch the following virtual International Rally that took place on Sunday night (March 29) – starts at 26 minutes