Split opinions over employment inquiry

Unite has hailed the recently announced inquiry into employment practices in the meat industry as "ground-breaking", but recruitment experts have questioned its worth.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission announced the launch of a formal Inquiry into the employment and recruitment practices of the meat processing sectors last week.

The Commission says that it has obtained evidence that suggests the meat processing sector is characterised by low pay and is over-reliant on agency workers, who often receive lower pay than their permanent colleagues and have different holiday and sick pay entitlements.

The Inquiry, which will gather evidence from individuals, meat processing companies, agency labour providers and other organisations over the next six months, has been described as a "watershed moment for workers" by Unite, the biggest workers union in Britain and Ireland.

Unite believes that the two-tier nature of meat industry employment is "characterised by the exploitation of migrant agency workers on poorer conditions" and has "caused division in the workplace and damaged social cohesion".

Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary of Unite, said: "Our national defender of human rights is sufficiently concerned about the practices of the meat industry that it is to subject it to the Commission's first-ever inquiry. This move should send shockwaves through an industry that has been indifferent to the treatment of its workers.

"This is a watershed moment for workers. This root-and-branch Inquiry will at last shine a light on this sector, from the lowly provider of labour right up to the mighty supermarket, and is certain to expose industrial practices that belong to the Dark Ages."

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) - the representative body for the UK recruitment industry - does not share Unite's praise for the Inquiry, however, and has challenged the basic premise behind it.

REC director of external relations Tom Hadley said that agency work is in fact "extremely well regulated" and pointed out that agencies in the food sector already come under the provisions of the Gangmaster Licensing Act.

"In addition, the government's recent Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forum showed that instances of exploitation are not intrinsically linked to whether a worker is temporary or permanent and announced better enforcement and awareness-raising measures that are only just being implemented," he said.

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