Socialist Worker

Hellish kitchen - Leicester bakery workers aren't falling for bosses' porkie pies

Workers at the Samworth Brothers food factories in Leicestershire told Nick Clark why they’d had their fill of management taking all the dough

Issue No. 2494

Conditions may be hellish - but workers are joining a union to fight back

Conditions may be hellish - but workers are joining a union to fight back


Millionaire David Samworth and the bosses at his Samworth Brothers’ food factories probably thought they’d have no trouble pushing through attacks on workers.

David and his brother Mark, a Samworth Brothers’ director, handed over half a million pounds between them to the Tories between 2010 and March last year.

Yet now they plead poverty to justify attacks on pay (see below).

Their mostly migrant workforce in Leicester and Melton Mowbray is spread across a number of different sites. And there has been no real union organisation there for years.

But workers aren’t taking the attack lying down.

Hundreds of Samworth workers have flocked to join the Bfawu union in a matter of weeks. The spark was a letter from bosses threatening to cut shift premiums, overtime pay and paid breaks.

But as workers told Socialist Worker, that’s not the only problem. Their names have been changed to protect them from victimisation.

“It’s hard work,” said Jaldev, who works at Samworth’s Melton Mowbray site. “It’s tiring. People working in lines, they do the same job again and again. Physical jobs— pulling, pushing, lifting.”

Jaldev explained how most of the work takes place in extreme temperatures.

“It’s cold. It’s below five. But we have some hot places such as cookhouses where they’re cooking the meat, sauces and stuff like that. The sauce comes out at nearly 90 degrees.”

Chittesh, another worker, said, “We’re handling hard frozen food and we only get plastic gloves. We’ve been asking for a long time for thermal gloves.

“They say it’s not hygienic. But the government says that you can use thermal gloves in the food industry.”

Daniel agreed that the work is hard. “Go and work there for a month,” he challenged. “I’ll give you £100 if you can survive one month. They treat you like shit.”

Daniel worked at Samworth’s Bradgate bakery in Leicester for 18 years before he retired. He said long hours was one of the toughest aspects of the job.

“Samworth Brothers used to push us to work after 12 hours,” he said. “I’ve worked there 14 hours. They cannot say this is not true. The biggest bullshitters on this earth are Samworth Brothers.”

Jaldev agreed. He explained that the shift system meant workers start work early in the morning, the afternoon or late at night. No one stops working until their order is complete.

Hours

“Sometimes you work 14 hours, sometimes you do 15 hours, sometimes we’ve done 16 hours,” he said.

The long hours are made worse by the fact that workers don’t always get proper breaks.

“We had to fight for our loo breaks,” said Chittesh. “And there’s only a half hour break from our lines. That’s not even at a fixed time. You get an eight o’clock break sometimes, and then you work until two o’clock. Sometimes you get an 11 o’clock break.

“They have to finish the order—10,000 sandwiches, 14,000 sandwiches. If the sandwiches are not finished you will not get a break at 11 o’clock.

“So people start working from six o’clock in the morning—obviously they wake up at about four or five. If you have a break at 11 o’clock you’re starving for about five hours.”

Work is done in crowded conditions at high speeds.

“It’s not always safe to walk around,” Daniel said. “When you are packed like sardines with 15, 16 lines running it’s hard to carry your ingredients to the guy on the weighing machine.”

Jaldev added, “Production is high. We’re doing more than we used to. We used to do 20 lots of sauce in a night. We’re doing 40 now.

“In 2007 we used to do 40 pies a minute. Now we’re doing 70. I think accidents are high because production is high.”

He added, “Recently someone broke his leg in two places. He burned himself. They put racks inside the ovens with meat to cook. An iron rack of about 100 kilos fell on his leg.”

Samworth Brothers workers at a Bfawu union meeting

Samworth Brothers workers at a Bfawu union meeting


Workers also face ill health in retirement.

“So many are suffering from arthritis,” said Daniel. “Many have a knee problem, or they’re going for a knee operation because of the cold.

“All you have to do is go to Glenfield Hospital and find out how many Bradgate staff are there for bad health.” He added, “I’m suffering from rheumatoid arthritis,

osteoarthritis, both of my knees are gone, I’ve got tennis elbow, my back is gone. Everything is gone because I bloody worked at Samworth.

“I have a hearing problem because it was one of the noisiest places I ever knew. They brought in earmuffs and made it mandatory to wear them. But there weren’t enough for all the staff.”

Workers complain of bullying and intimidation.

Daniel explained, “When accidents happen the question should be, did you see anything? Did you know how this happened?

Frightened

“Instead you feel you have to keep your mouth fucking shut—don’t say anything. People get frightened.”

Like in many workplaces, bosses at Samworth pretend to listen workers through internal shop floor “reps”. At Samworth these are called BCC reps.

But as Daniel explained, “Most are effectively chosen by the directors and the managers. They’re all fucking company puppets.”

Chittesh said one BCC rep spent six years trying to change things—but kept hitting a brick wall.

“That rep was elected and is fighting for people,” he said. “But the BCCs cover up for management. And management hardly listen to them.”

Daniel agreed. “When you take grievances from the line you have to go through the channel.

“You’ve got to go to a meeting with the managers. Anything against the company, they chop it off.

“Then they ask us, who are these people complaining? If you mention anyone’s name they get hanged by their balls.”

Speaking up can land you in trouble. Chittesh said, “I call it bullying and harassment. If you speak out you are in their eyes a troublemaker and they try to push you out.

“Any little mistake, or not even a mistake, they’ll give you warning letters, disciplinary.”

All this means workers can be scared to join Bfawu. Chittesh said, “Some people have been called inside the office and threatened. Saying, if you’re joining the union and if you’re not listening to us, you’re out of the door.

“But at the last two meetings people have been joining the union.”

The recent attack on wages has pushed many workers into taking action. “About 120 people from one shift have signed a letter to say they don’t like the proposal,” said Jaldev.

Shifts

“They have given three letters already to the management saying that they don’t like it. It says their living costs are going up so they can’t afford to take it. I hear a lot of shifts signed it as a team and gave it to them. Now they want to meet us one by one to scare us.”

Despite bosses’ best attempts, hundreds of people have signed up to Bfawu in the past few weeks.

More than 300 people turned up when Bfawu called a mass meeting last month, surpassing organisers’ expectations. Hundreds have attended more meetings since.

It shows the potential for resistance in workplaces where workers haven’t previously been unionised.

Bfawu regional official George Atwall said, “The union’s picking up a lot of membership.

“We’ve had people standing on gates campaigning. We’ve done mass meetings, and we’ve built up teams working inside now.”

Bosses at Samworth are desperately trying to stop people joining the union. “One of the managers has been scaremongering,” George said. “They said if the union gets in, Samworth Brothers will shut the door. We say to our members, be strong. There’s probably four or five directors making these changes. But there’s 5,000 of yourselves.”

George explained how the attacks on pay and the drive to organise had the potential to turn things around for workers.

He said, “Samworth hasn’t had a trade union for years. We’ve campaigned there in previous years. But what’s happened there are totally unjustifiable changes.

“Now suddenly they’re taking premium rates, shift allowance and as an insult offering them a business card and free car parking.”

It won’t be easy. But workers seem up for the fight. As Chittesh said, “It’s been a lot of things over the years that have carried on like this.

“People are getting fed up.”


Upper crust bosses are slicing up pay

Workers at Samworth say they could lose as much as £3,000 if the bosses’ new contracts go through.

Bank holiday and Sunday shift allowances would be scrapped. Night shift allowances and overtime would be gradually reduced, before getting rid of both.

In a job on minimum wage, where overtime is unavoidable, the losses will hit workers hard.

Jaldev said, “People have got their houses and everything because of their wages. So bringing the new contracts will devastate us. A lot of families’ livelihoods will be affected.

“If their wages go down, what are they going to do? They’re going to struggle.”

Samworth Brothers try to mask the cut behind pay increases and perks such as profit shares, discount cards and free parking.

They say the minimum wage increase to £7.20 in April—the Tories’ new “Living Wage”—mean they can’t afford to keep paying premiums.

They insist workers will be better off. But Daniel said, “They’re using dirty tactics. They say look, we’re giving you this, we’re giving you that. But they’re not actually telling you how much you’re going to lose.”

Workers have been told they could lose their jobs if they refuse to sign the new contract. But they’re not going to take it—especially when they know business is good.

In 2014 Samworth Brothers made sales worth more than £800 million. Profits rose by 25 percent to £41.7 million.

Top boss David Samworth was listed by Leicester Mercury as Leicester’s fifth richest man in 2015, worth £500 million.

Jaldev said, “They say the minimum wage is going up and they can’t afford it. But Samworth is one of the biggest companies. They can afford it.

“Our hard work is putting Sir David Samworth where he is. We work hard on the shop floor to make a millionaire.

“We feel like we’ve been used and thrown in the bin.”


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Features
Tue 8 Mar 2016, 17:38 GMT
Issue No. 2494
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