The UK’s largest chicken producer 2 Sisters Food Group made the headlines recently for failing to take the safety of our country’s key workers seriously. Last month their Llangefni plant in Wales, which employs 560 people, was forced to close for two weeks as a coronavirus outbreak infected nearly 300 people. Of course, actions could have been taken to minimise the threat of such an outbreak but the bosses of 2 Sisters have a long history of treating their employees like disposable commodities.
Such poor treatment bears no relations to the profit margins of the company. In fact unlike many other companies 2 Sisters has not suffered financial losses during this pandemic, so they have absolutely no reason to fail to look after the health and safety of their low-paid workers and their families. As the Financial Times (July 24) reported this week, “2 Sisters benefited from a spike in demand for chicken and packaged foods in lockdown, while unexpectedly positive results in June, in which owner Boparan Holdings reported a near 50 per cent jump in earnings for the three months to April”.
Throughout the pandemic trade unions have warned that key workers like those employed by 2 Sisters were effectively being forced to come into work sick because the workers knew they their greedy employer would not be paying them any sick pay. The Financial Times noted:
“John (not his real name) works on a 2 Sisters production line and said that like many colleagues, he only receives statutory sick pay of £95.85 a week, making time off financially untenable. In Anglesey, the company agreed to pay full wages while the factory was closed. But John, who works at a different plant, recently had to take several weeks off with coronavirus on the statutory rate. ‘We put ourselves and our families in danger . . . We are still the forgotten key workers,’ he said. ‘Ranjit [the 2 Sisters boss] is earning millions and he can’t afford to pay £250 a week for us when we are ill.’”
The article noted that how Unite the union continues to fight “for 2 Sisters to pay all staff full sick pay.” But 2 Sisters continue to ignore such reasonable demands, and so continue to endanger their workforce and the communities they live in. The only time the 2 Sisters bosses have agreed to pay full sick pay for their staff was in the wake of the closure of their Llangefni plant, and even then they had initially planned to just close the site and force their key workers to live off £95 a week! So what happened…
On June 17, thirteen workers had tested positive at the Welsh site with 110 being sent home to self-isolate. The following day there were 58 confirmed cases at the Llangefni site, and all workers were sent home. A spokesperson for the company stating: “We will not tolerate any unnecessary risks – however small – for our existing loyal workforce at the facility.” A bland, meaningless press statement that is utter b*******. Nevertheless, just two days after the closure it became public knowledge that 2 Sisters were planning to try to get away with making their staff live off £95 a week for the duration of the closure. Peter Hughes, a Unite regional secretary tweeted:
“So @2SFGofficial, first you neglect H&S of your workforce & food lines expecting members to work through a COVID19 outbreak. And now I learn you intend to punish workers for your mistakes by refusing to offer full pay? Exploitation isn’t a good look.” (June 20)
Two days later, the union succeeded in forcing 2 Sisters to treat their employees like humans and got them to promise that all 560 workers would be able to obtain full pay for the duration of the closure. Yet despite this small and important victory 2 Sisters employees across the country are still only entitled to statutory sick pay during any period of self-isolation. Bosses therefore continue to put profits over people, and our government is doing nothing to discourage such appalling behaviour.
(2 Sisters bosses were forced by their employees into creating a £1 million welfare fund, which they are using to pay two weeks full pay for the 560 workers in Llangefni. This will of course mean there will be very little left for their other 20,000 employees if any of them need to self-isolate for any reason.)
Now is the time for all workers to unite and fight back, whether you are key worker or not. Join a union, and if the bosses continue to pretend that they can’t afford to pay sick pay or afford to top-up the pay of furloughed workers then raise the demand made by the Bakers Union in the context of exploitation of workers by the Greencore Food Group: