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

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)

Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Administrative Assistant

£60 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Administrative Assitant Hertford...

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

** Secondary History Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Secondary Geography Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments