Mushrooms and slaves linked in farm protest: Sacked workers look to the Booker Prize to highlight their case. Barrie Clement reports

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The Independent Online
A SMALL band of mushroom pickers from Yorkshire is determined that this year's ceremony to celebrate the Booker Prize for literature will not be without incident.

The 80 or so farm workers, all women, were sacked by a company owned by the sponsors of the award after refusing to take a cut in wages and accept inferior conditions.

The former employees of Middlebrook Mushrooms, owned by the Booker group are seeking to appraise the literati of their plight in the most embarrassing way possible. They will remind people that this respected patron of the arts - in common with many other long-established international traders - was an enthusiastic participant in the forcible transportation of black people from Africa to the Caribbean 200 years ago. A demonstration in which the mushroom pickers will dress as slaves is planned for the Booker ceremony in the autumn. 'We are not saying we are suffering like the slaves suffered. But we do believe we were loyal workers and that people with a high regard for the Booker Prize ought to realise that,' Carole Westerman, the workers' shop steward said.

Ironically, last October the joint winner of the Booker Prize, Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, was a novel about the iniquities of the slave trade.

The dispute began last October when management insisted on the reduction in wage rates and on recruiting casual workers for weekend working. When talks with the company broke down the Transport and General Workers' Union decided to hold a ballot on a series of strikes after an overtime ban had proved unsuccessful.

When the company heard the women were to hold a vote, managers called the 89 pickers into the canteen on 20 November and told them they were being sacked and that they should leave the premises immediately.

Since then the familiar picketing paraphernalia has grown up around the farm entrance to remind newly-employed workers that they have secured jobs at the expense of people who have been dismissed. A demonstration in nearby Selby today will attempt to reinforce the point.

The farm - it looks more like a small factory - lies in a hollow near the village of Whitley Bridge. This area of Yorkshire has traditionally earned its living either on the farm or at the colliery.

Many of the women come from mining families and some of their husbands were out for a year during the coal strike.

The women's pay for a basic 25-hour week came to pounds 93, although some worked up to 50 hours. Having accepted a pay freeze the previous year, last summer the pickers were offered a 4 per cent increase on basic, but a reduction in overtime pay. The hourly rates were to be reduced from pounds 7.48 on a Sunday to pounds 4.68. The Booker group made pounds 91m in pre-tax profits last year.

The women have drawn up a rota for picketing. Cries of 'scab' greet those who cross their lines. Fraternal visitors from other trade unions come and go. Occasionally, mounted police form a line outside the plant and dog handlers patrol the grounds under the gaze of newly-installed video cameras. Middlebrook Mushrooms insists that the reduction in overtime rates at the weekend was forced on it by the advent of Sunday trading which meant more mushrooms had to be picked at weekends. 'The company was simply fighting to survive. It was in a dire situation,' a Booker spokeswoman said.

In reply to the intention to make much of Middlebrook's connection with the Booker Prize and the group's historical connection with the slave trade, she said writers would have to make up their own minds. 'I can't see that they would have much interest in what goes on inside Booker.'

Brian Dyer, managing director of Middlebrook, said the company tried to explain the trading position of the company to the pickers, who earned much higher rates of pay than other farm workers. 'I promise you, we are not an uncaring, hard, heavy-handed employer,' he said.

The women are unimpressed. 'You know what they say about bad management. They're like mushroom farmers, they keep their workers in the dark and feed them on shit. Well we're going to give them some of their own medicine.' There is a plan to deposit a sizeable portion of manure on the doorstep of the Booker head office in London.

(Photographs omitted)