The meat sector is facing the scrutiny of the equality watchdog as it launches a formal inquiry into the employment and recruitment practices of the meat processing industry in England and Wales.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) says it has obtained evidence that suggests the meat and poultry processing sector is characterised by low pay and has become reliant on agency and migrant workers. Its investigation will look into differences in the pay and conditions of temporary workers who undertake the same jobs as employees with permanent or directly-employed status. The inquiry will also consider the wider implications of changes to the status of agency or temporary workers. The meat sector employs roughly 40,000 workers in the UK.
EHRC chairman Trevor Philips notes: “We know there are good examples of companies and employment agencies who treat these workers fairly. But there are concerns about inequality in recruitment and employment practices in other companies and we want to ensure that fair treatment is the norm across the sector rather than the exception.”
Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary of Unite, which represents the majority of workers in the sector, says: “This move should send shockwaves through an industry that has been indifferent to the treatment of its workers.”
The Welsh government also believes that more should be done to make migrant workers aware of their rights and responsibilities. Its report found a lack of knowledge among migrants about their rights and believes that poor command of the English language can leave them open to exploitation. Welsh Assembly members called for more English classes and clearer information on life in Wales and for co-ordinated mapping of migrant numbers to help plan services better.
But neither the white nor red meat sector is overly worried about what the inquiry might find and suggest. The white meat sector has declared an interest in the inquiry through its trade body, the British Poultry Council (BPC). “We know there has been concern about the working conditions of meat processing workers for a while, but the poultry industry and BPC members believe they are in the upper echelons as far as these are concerned,” says Richard Griffiths, senior executive officer of the BPC. “We distance ourselves from those elements that have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.”
Others who believe the meat sector is being unfairly criticised include Jack Matthews, chief executive of food and drink skills sector council Improve, who says: “As far as I am concerned, meat processors treat their workers fairly, whether they come from the UK or the rest of the world, as they want to retain them. If they were being mistreated, with the rise of the economy in their own countries, especially in the case of Poles, they would be off like a rocket back home.” Matthews adds that meat processors are putting in employment practices that will help them retain workers.
Poultry processor 2 Sisters Group agrees that it is in the employer’s interest to look after casual and migrant labour. Peter King of the 2 Sisters Group says the company is constantly reviewing how it can make migrant and agency workers feel welcome and help them settle into their new environment. “In our business they are an essential resource due to the shortage of available local labour prepared to work in our industry. We recognise that migrant workers can have a positive impact on local communities and are important in sustaining local business diversity.”
He adds that the 2 Sisters group recognises the importance and benefit of investment in people and that it is a proud supporter of the revised Voluntary Code of Practice on employing migrant workers. “We are especially proud of our commitment to essential skills training in the workplace. For example, our food business in Lincolnshire supports and encourages migrant workers to learn English as a second language, as well as develop practical qualifications that offer all our employees an opportunity to better themselves. We are seeing benefits in this, with migrant labour now well represented in line management roles.”
However, the meat sector, like the rest of food and drink sector, is calling on the government to relax labour market restrictions that limit the industry’s access to migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria, in order to ease staff shortages as some Slovaks and Poles head home or to the new emerging economies.
Matthews, who has given evidence to the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), says the immigration quota placed on Bulgarian and Romanian workers is “inconsistent when matched against need” and unfairly penalises certain food and drink sectors. “Just under one in five workers in the food and drink industry are classified as migrants, with the majority originating from, the so-called ‘A8’ group of eastern European countries admitted to the EU in 2004,” he says. “That is a relatively heavy reliance on migrant labour, but it stems from basic need – food and drink companies simply haven’t been able to source workers in the numbers they need at home for years now. Even with the current economic downturn and rise in unemployment, it is difficult to recruit local people into certain jobs.”
He notes the sector knows that migrant labour is not a sustainable answer and is working hard to plug gaps in the domestic labour market. “But that will not happen overnight and, in the meantime, while Polish, Slovakian and Lithuanian workers are heading home, companies are being short-staffed in certain key occupations,” he says.
In the case of the meat industry, there appears to be a dearth of boners and trimmers. As a result, representatives from the MAC have met with processors who are concerned about the stumbling block of the government’s points-based system and quotas in the recruitment of workers. These have included Dunbia (Sawley), a beef abattoir and beef deboning plant, Linden Foods and ABP Newry.
The MAC says that the boners’ and meat trimmers’ occupation is not skilled in its top-down analysis. It also acknowledges that it has heard evidence that there are no formal qualifications for boning and trimming. “We were told that it takes at least one year of on-the-job training to start work as a boner but that it takes several more years of practice to become experienced and efficient at it. We considered that, within this limited job title, we saw sufficient evidence of skill.”