Describing some of the incidents of alleged bullying reported by his staff in recent months, Food Standards Agency (FSA) head Tim Smith gives the impression of someone who has seen — and heard — about as much as he is willing to put up with.
“It seems clear to me, for as long as I have been here, that in very small numbers of plants, but at a very unpleasant and unwelcome level, there has been systematic and routine bullying and harassment of our staff,” he says.
Evidence gathered by the FSA through its own surveys and those of trade union body Unison suggest wide-ranging examples of both physical and verbal abuse of FSA staff in meat plants. Physical abuse ranges from straightforward assaults, with people attacked on the line for making a decision, through to assaults on property.
“We have had people’s cars badly damaged, we have had people’s cars blocked in car parks, we have had cars clingfilmed so that nobody can actually get in them,” says Smith. Verbal abuse has included swearing and intimidation over unpopular decisions, as well as sexist and racist bullying. “We have had things as bad as monkey chants going on,” he adds.
Smith admits that there could be an element of the sometimes combative relationship between the FSA and industry filtering down to the attitudes of staff in the plants, but does not believe it is the main driver. “Yes there are businesses that I go and visit where staff report they have been given a hard time over full cost recovery, but it doesn’t transmit itself as bullying and harassment,” he says.
Instead, he believes it is primarily due to the FSA’s role as regulator, with his staff often having to make decisions which slow down the line. “It is slightly more difficult for us, as the regulator, because we are in that position of enforcing decisions on businesses that might not be the most commercially lucrative — and there has always been that tension in the way the regulations works when you have got a permanent presence.” He adds that there is also a racist and sexist element, with workers in the industry targeting those who they feel are ‘different’. “You can imagine it is a bit schoolyard-ish, but there is that sense that… they use that opportunity, turning on not the weakest, but the one who is most different.”
Smith says that bullying and harassment are rare in larger plants, which typically have a well-developed set of employment policies and processes, and in smaller plants, which tend to have very small teams. So the finger is pointed primarily at medium-sized plants, although Smith points out that “There are some really well-ordered medium-sized operations, whether red meat or white meat, where actually their systems are fine and their treatment of our people is equally fine.”
It is, he says, in the “grimy underbelly of the processing world” where problems exist.
With 21 reported incidents of bullying in FSA-approved plants since February 2011, Smith estimates that incidents are occurring in around 10-20% of plants in the UK. However, he says there is a possibility that the problem is more widespread.
“When we did our 2009 survey, 43% of the people who responded said they had personally experienced bullying and harassment at work during the past 12 months. That would point at something deeper and broader than we might have anticipated.”
In order to establish a more accurate picture of bullying and harassment of its staff, the FSA has commissioned comprehensive independent research, which is due to be published in the New Year. Until then, the Agency will be campaigning against bullying with a number of initiatives including a new Code of Conduct included in welcome packs for newly FSA-approved slaughterhouses, anti-bullying workshops for all FSA frontline operational managers and an Anti-Bullying and Advisors Network, offering confidential support to members of staff concerned who are about bullying.
A big part of the FSA campaign will involve communication with the meat industry, says Smith, and the FSA’s message is clear: “This is unacceptable; we will not tolerate it happening and if it does happen on your site at any point, you can expect to have our people withdrawn with no notice. We are not going to mess about here.”
Smith explains that the FSA is adopting a zero tolerance policy on bullying and will not be afraid to use the ultimate sanction of withdrawing staff if things get bad enough. “We could be quite punitive about that and not just take the staff away for a day, which means they cannot produce, but for longer,” he says.
He insists there will be a careful investigation of incidents to ensure that they are genuine, and says he will be just as tough on his own staff. “By raising the awareness of bullying and harassment we are not trying to promote poor relations between business and our staff – it is quite the opposite; we want people to understand how the relationship is supposed to work,” he says.
Although the large majority of plants operating in the UK will have nothing to worry about, Smith says there could be some wider implications surrounding self regulation unless bullying and harassment is stamped out in the industry. “There is another aspect to this, which we have been debating internally, which is largely to do with the industry’s expectation and ours that, in the future, more of the signing-off, the approval of an animal for human consumption… is going to be done by staff employed by someone other than government.
“There are plants I could go to where I would be completely confident that that would be okay, but the evidence from the surveys suggests there are plants where, if you ever let that happen, you would effectively be opening the doors to an unregulated meat business rather than one that is properly regulated by the business themselves. If bullying and harassment have pretty much been stamped out, that would be a residual concern, but at the moment it is quite a chunky piece of worry for us.”
He says that, with a history of bullying, self-regulation would be a big step for the meat industry. “It is unfortunate, because it is a bad apple problem. It is the contamination of the reputation of the industry by a very small number of people that potentially damages progress being made by the majority.”
Smith promises the FSA will offer businesses advice and guidance to on how to eradicate bullying, but says it will prioritise helping plants which want help. “There are people who genuinely are unaware, there are people who are aware but do not know what to do. They are within our sights of people that we can help sort this out, as they are the ones who are, if you like, within easy reach.”
For plants that refuse to co-operate, he says, there will be only one conclusion. “They won’t have a government-sponsored body working in those premises. People just won’t be there and they won’t be able to operate."
Case Study 1
In July 2011, a Lead Veterinarian (LV) contracted by the Food Standards Agency, reported an incident of verbal abuse, which took place in an office at a red meat plant in Yorkshire. The LV was subject to a torrent of abuse, which included being called a “f****** b****” by members
of the FBO’s staff, who took
issue over what had been
written by the LV in the meat plant’s Day Book.
As the LV tried to leave the office, her path was blocked
by FBO staff, who refused to
move away from the door. The LV was forced to push past the FBO staff in order to leave the room and immediately reported the incident to the FSA. The LV’s service was temporarily withdrawn and, following conversations between the FSA and FBO, service was returned.