Food industry probe reveals abuse of foreign workers

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Foreign labourers employed in the meat and poultry industry face physical and racist abuse by British staff, an investigation has found.

Many workers reported being pushed, kicked or having things thrown at them by line managers, said investigators from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Some of the worst abuses were committed against pregnant women who were also forced to continue to undertake work that posed risks to their health, including heavy lifting and extended periods of standing.

The inquiry uncovered frequent breaches of the law and licensing standards in meat processing factories - some of which supply the UK’s biggest supermarkets - and the agencies that supply workers to them. It also highlighted conditions which flout minimum ethical trading standards and basic human rights.

The report said: “Physical and verbal abuse were not uncommon, with a fifth of workers interviewed reporting being pushed, kicked or having things thrown at them by line managers; over a third of workers interviewed said they had experienced, or witnessed verbal abuse, often on a daily basis.”

It added: “Workers also reported being refused permission to take toilet breaks, and subsequently urinating or bleeding on themselves at the production line.”

Responding to the report, union leaders said “Britain’s Supermarkets should hang their heads in shame”.

Unite Deputy General Secretary, Jack Dromey said: “The EHRC report exposes labour practices in the supermarket supply chain that are an affront to human decency – physical and verbal abuse, a lack of health and safety protection, shameful treatment of pregnant women and a culture of fear. The report says, and rightly so, that there are reputable employers but they are undercut by the rogues.”

The inquiry, which was launched in October 2008, examined the employment and recruitment practices in the sector to identify differences in pay and conditions between agency and temporary workers and employees with permanent or directly employed status.

One third of the permanent workforce and over two thirds of agency workers in the industry are migrant workers. At one in six meat processing sites involved in the study, every single agency worker used in the past twelve months was a migrant worker. This is in part due to difficulties in recruiting British workers to what is physically demanding, low paid work. It may also be due to perceptions amongst employers and agencies that British workers are either unable or unwilling to work in the sector.

More than eight out of ten of the 260 workers that gave evidence said that agency workers were treated worse than directly employed workers. Seven out of ten workers said they thought they were treated badly in factories or by agencies because of their race or nationality.

Neil Kinghan, Director General of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “The Commission’s inquiry reveals widespread and significant ill-treatment in the industry. We have heard stories of workers subjected to bullying, violence and being humiliated and degraded by being denied toilet breaks. Some workers feel they have little choice but to put up with these conditions out of economic necessity.

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