In this report from the shop floor, Greenford-based group Workers Wild West write about West London’s immense warehousing sector. Concentrating on Bakkavor’s Cumberland, Elveden, Abbeydale, Harrow and Premier Park sites, they take an in-depth look at conditions and explain how the scandal of Sports Direct is just everyday practice for bosses.
We all heard about the scandal at the Sports Direct warehouse. The newspapers were outraged that people in the UK in 2016 were working in “Victorian workhouse” conditions. But the real scandal is that this is everywhere. Around here, in the warehouses and factories of west London, it is normal for managers to bully workers, steal our wages, cancel our shifts, pay us peanuts, treat us like dirt. But there aren’t any reporters sniffing around these streets.
Everyone knows Sports Direct. Who can resist the bargain basement socks and tracksuit bottoms?! And the owner is famous for being a billionaire who everyone loves to hate. But who’s ever heard of Bakkavor? Or Lydur and Agust Gudmundsson, its owners from Iceland? But we’ve all bought a supermarket ready-meal, pizza or a pot of houmous — and there’s a good chance it was made by workers in this company. They have factories all over the UK, including four in west London (Park Royal & Harrow). They supply to all the major supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Waitrose, M&S and Aldi. They employ thousands of workers. They made over £60 million profit last year. And us workers are still getting minimum wage.
The permanent workers are mainly from Gujurat in the Cumberland and Elveden factories, with quite a few Sri Lankans too, and with more recently arrived people from Goa mainly at Abbeydale. Like most of the bigger places around here, they use agency staff to put pressure on the permanents. The agency staff are mostly from Eastern Europe. Culture clash!! Communication is often difficult. And people get frustrated with each other: women on the line sometimes get annoyed when they have to teach the new agency people what to do; bad English skills means single words are shouted and people complain about bad manners; the people from India relate to each other in ways that exclude the non-Indians; some of the the assembly lines have doubled in speed over the last few years; there are more and more middle managers but also more and more disorganisation. No wonder people are stressed and take it out on each other.
But it’s not all bad. It is actually pretty amazing that people from such different countries as Romania and Sri Lanka are working together. Despite the chaos and despite the fact that we may not be able to communicate so well, we still manage to work together to produce thousands and thousands of pizzas, samosas, ready-meals and houmous. And if you make a bit of extra effort to speak to people, you can have some interesting conversations. Everyone has a story in this place. We’ve all lived somewhere else. We’ve worked on ships. Many of us have sacrificed something to make a future for ourselves and our children. Some of us remember the Iron Curtain and, “the good old times when you never had to worry about being homeless or unemployed!” (But things must be pretty bad if an Eastern Block police state looks all cosy to us now!)
Before the government raised the minimum wage to £7.20 last year, permanent workers were earning 9 pence more than the previous minimum wage (£6.79). Many people rely on overtime, where we get time-and-a-half, to make up for the small pay packet we otherwise get every week. If we have to rely on overtime to make ends meet, something must be wrong!
There is a large union membership inside the company (GMB) and people pay £13 a month. They might get some help with individual grievances and disciplinaries but in terms of health and safety, pay, and general atmosphere, we haven’t really gotten our money’s worth. When the new minimum wage was introduced, suddenly the company found the extra money. Many workers think the company is doing badly. They lost the Tesco mash contract early in 2016 and previous Christmas periods seemed to be busier. But this does not mean they are doing badly overall. They are hiring hundreds of workers in other parts of the country and their revenue is increasing every year.
In the first half of December 2016 a notice went up on the GMB noticeboards in the various factories, saying that the 2017 pay claim would be in line with the London Living Wage. After years of below-inflation pay increases they wrote about how the increasing pressure on workers was no longer acceptable. This is fighting talk — and about time! But what we can be sure about is that Bakkavor won’t do this voluntarily. It will take the whole workforce to come together and take action. The question is, how much will the union really put up a fight? They may be able to bring out the permanent workers on strike but the agency workers, who are not in the union, will probably not be included. But this will be necessary if we don’t just want agency workers to take the extra shifts and undermine a strike. And how much will us workers feel that we are part of the decision-making process and have some control over what action we take and the outcome? If we really want to change things around here, we need to try and take some responsibility ourselves and not leave this all in the hands of the union reps and negotiators.
In the last year, some workers were told that they had to change their shift pattern. They wanted people working four days on, three days off. This is the cheapest way to have the factory running for 24 hours because it means you only need two shifts instead of three. People working weekdays were told they had to work weekends instead and some people had to move over to night shift. Women with kids had problems with childcare and many went to HR to complain. But they were told that if they didn’t like it, they could leave. Some did. But then, some agency workers came and got weekday shifts so it seems the company puts the permanent workers’ needs last. It doesn’t matter if you work here one year or 10 years – there is no such thing as “job security.”
Then there is the issue of overtime. Working overtime after a regular ten-hour shift like we have to do at Cumberland and Abbeydale is HARD. lots of us agree to work the overtime because we need the extra money. But the company wants to make our regular shifts longer so they don’t have to pay as much in overtime. Once they make shifts 10 hours long, and we do two hours extra overtime, what is to say that in a couple of years, they won’t ask us to do 12 hours as standard?
Lots of people who were given three-month contracts with Bakkavor in August have been having ongoing payment problems. One guy who had been working there for six weeks was owed £1,000! He left the job in disgust when he finally got his money, after hassling HR and contacting the GMB. But another young woman was just going to quit and not to fight for her money — probably because she didn’t know how and her English was not so good. Lots of people were affected by this, and when we are being paid weekly, we cannot afford these f**k ups! People have their individual disputes with HR but it would have been a good opportunity to go as a bigger group, or at least get together to discuss a plan of action.
How much red cap terror can we take?! These lucky people, the ones chosen to wear red mob caps (worn over our hairnets) are plucked from the masses and offered the chance to always be stressed out, to get paid a few pennies more than us normal workers! A dream come true. The basic job description is to be an excellent shouter, ask stupid questions: “Why line stop?!”, and give helpful advice such as: “Faster!” “No talking!” “Don’t make mistakes!” “More cheese!” “Less cheese!” “Make properly!”
The higher-up managers set the tone and the ones at Cumberland and Abbeydale in particular are notoriously mental. One made a woman cry on her last day of work. And he made an older agency woman cry on her first day for wearing the wrong colour mob cap — when she hadn’t even started her shift yet! He obviously ate his Weetabix that morning.
The agency offers time-and-a-quarter for overtime (over 40 hours) if you have been at Bakkavor for under 12 weeks. After that you get same as permanents (time-and-a-half). But often, the agency tries to get out of paying this rate by sending you to a different site from where you usually work. They say this is a “different workplace” so does not count for the overtime payment. But if you are doing the same type of work for the same company, just in a different location, legally, this means you should still get the overtime rate.
It is hard to get together and try and stand up to this and the general atmosphere, especially when some of the permanent staff often don’t seem too supportive. If you think you won’t be at the agency for long, you put up with it because it is only a short-term thing and it is a hassle to make a fuss, for sure. But on the flip side, it probably only takes is three or four people to decide to act for others to feel confident to join…
In December 2016, a notice went up that two Bakkavor employees at the Elveden factory had been arrested and detained by the Home Office because they had fake passports. They had worked at the company for a long time. It is always difficult to find out exactly what happened in these kind of situations, but rumour has it that Bakkavor knew the immigration were coming and had to pay a £40,000 fine.
Sometimes, companies work with the immigration people to trap their own workers in order to avoid a fine. This is what happened in the case of Byron Burgers. Rumours were that Bakkvor were fined anyway — £20,000 per “illegal” worker. The Home Office could have gone to these workers’ homes but instead, they came to their workplace. This seems to indicate that Bakkavor were involved. Fear spreads amongst all workers, which is good for the management because it means their workforce will not be too demanding.
This incident happened around the same time that GMB announced that they would try to win a big pay rise in 2017, bringing pay more into line with the London Living Wage of almost £10 an hour. In this context, fears around immigration can work to the company’s benefit to keep people quiet
Ever noticed how it’s mainly the men who are still in the canteen at two minutes to start of shift? And it’s mainly us men who are wandering around the factory? We might have to do more physical work but we also get to escape the red cap’s attention for some parts of the day. Impossible if you are a woman. They are chained to the line, every toilet break is monitored, they can’t slip back a bit late from break because the red caps will notice. They even get told off for talking to each other too much. Is this a prison or what?
But why are certain jobs only done by men? Women can stack a pallet just as easily. It might take two women to carry a pallet but they can do it. Women can also use a pallet truck — especially if it works properly or is a PPT. Women can lift the pastry trays and strong women can even do the lasagna trays. Men can go on the line and put sleeves on containers. Or glue on the pastry. But when someone tries to do a “man’s job” or a “woman’s job”, they are shouted at or undermined by other workers. Fair enough people don’t want to do “more jobs” but men shouldn’t automatically be put to heavier jobs because what about if the man is old or has a bad back? Jobs should be done according to our abilities, not whether we are a man or a woman. After two hours of doing ANY job our muscles start to hurt and our backs start to ache – regardless of whether we are a man or a woman. The point is we should all be rotating jobs so we all get some breaks and less chance of injuries.
The red caps’ shouting plus the work pressure means it is difficult to stay happy. But it is up to us to maintain some standards towards each other. Sometimes permanents feel closer to their line leader than an agency worker. They complain to the line leader that the agency person is not working fast enough rather than trying to talk directly to the agency worker. If agency workers feel scared and bullied, it is also because the permanents are not able to create a friendly atmosphere where people know they are supported and looked after. Obviously some people do speak up — and make red cap enemies. And then they go to the union for a formal disciplinary or grievance procedure. But this is a way to make all our problems individual ones. The bigger picture is: We ALL face similar problems: pay, lack of respect, a disregard for health and safety of workers. But many of us are scared to try and change things. Lots of us are worried that if we try and do something, we could end up losing this job that we depend on. But that is why we have to stick together more, across the different sites, to build up our power against management victimisation.
We need to think about what we can do to put pressure on the bosses to give us better pay and conditions, but that will not make us stand out individually. We can make an impact without doing anything that we could be individually victimised for.
Firstly, we have to stop being grateful for this job. We have to stop thinking that we are too old, that we don’t deserve more because we don’t speak good English. That we are “unskilled.” Our collective strength is what is important, not whether we can speak English or have a degree. This work is hard. They send us crazy. It won’t be better in the next job either. We have to make things better for ourselves now! And we should not be bribed by the fact that ‘anyone could do this job.’ We have seen how fast new agency staff come and go. Most of them quickly learn that the job is not worth it, and leave. If they tried to replace us, most of the replacements would quit after a few days or weeks. They need us more than they let on…
This report first appeared in Workers’ Wild West Issue 5, a free paper for the Greenford produced by the Angry Workers of the World. To get in touch, email angryworkersworld [at] gmail.com or call 07544 338-993. Illustration from the Workers’ Wild West front page.