Socialist Worker

Greedy food giant 2 Sisters swallows up firms at workers’ expense

by Nick Clark
Issue No. 2507

2 Sisters workers on strike on Thursday of last week in Newport, South Wales

2 Sisters workers on strike on Thursday of last week in Newport, South Wales (Pic: Julie Sherry)


Boparan Holdings Ltd, 2 Sisters’ parent company, has quietly become Britain’s largest food and drink manufacturer by attacking workers’ pay and conditions.

Ranjit Singh and Baljinder Boparan, the chief executive officer and director of 2 Sisters, are Boparan Holdings’ sole shareholders.

They saw the company move to the head of the pack last September.

But success comes at a price. The past few years have seen 2 Sisters post big losses, including some £29 million last year, £20 million in 2014 and £13 million in 2013.

In its last accounts, the company blamed the threat of bird flu, food deflation and “negative consumer sentiment” following Food Standards Agency reports on the campylobacter bacteria.

Accounts

Accounts for Boparan Holdings in the same year spoke of “streamlining operations” at Gunstones Bakery and Fox’s Biscuits to help deal with the losses.

This referred to an attempted pay freeze for workers at Gunstones and some 91 job cuts at Fox’s.

This is how 2 Sisters try to offset the costs of their expansion—slashing jobs, driving down wages and attacking workers’ conditions.

A fresh round of attacks on pay (see below) are no one-offs. They reflect a pattern across the industry as bosses try to offset the cost of the new minimum wage. Similar attacks are ongoing at Samworth Brothers’ food factories in Leicester and fish supplier Icelandic Seachill, which sells Saucy Fish.

But 2 Sisters in particular have form. In 2014 they got rid of more than 420 jobs at Gunstones and the Bfawu union has estimated that 2 Sisters has axed 2,000 jobs while expanding.

But there are signs that 2 Sisters can be beaten. Strikes at Gunstones last year saw workers break through bosses’ attempts at a pay freeze. In 2012 strikes at 2 Sisters sites in the West Midlands saw workers beat off a similar attack.

With a fight already building at two factories (see below)—and a possible third in the pipeline—there’s a real chance that 2 Sisters bosses could be stopped in their tracks.


Workers at 2 Sisters strike against bosses’ attacks

Bfawu union members at 2 Sisters’ Pennine Foods in Sheffield have held two 48-hour strikes in the past few weeks.

Their latest strike ended on Monday of this week.

And Bfawu members at another 2 Sisters factory—RF Brookes in Newport in South Wales—followed their lead last Thursday and Friday.

Bosses there want to make up the new minimum wage by transferring workers onto new shift patterns with different pay rates.

Pickets at Pennine Foods in Sheffield

Pickets at Pennine Foods in Sheffield (Pic: Gareth Lane)

Unite union members at a 2 Sisters pizza factory in Nottingham have also begun a strike ballot over similar attacks.

Arron was on the picket line at RF Brookes. He explained how 2 Sisters’ new contract scam works.

He said, “They’ve combined shift allowances into the hourly rate so they can lawfully say they’ve met the requirement.

“It means a lot of people are getting less or the same amount as they were before.”

The company expanded aggressively over the past five years with a series of buyouts and acquisitions (see right).

Redundancies

But it paid for its expansion with pay cuts and redundancies at its newly acquired sites.

One of those sites is RF Brookes, which 2 Sisters bought from Premier Foods in 2011.

Bfawu rep David Mort said, “When 2 Sisters first bought us around five years ago, my old director told me it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened.

“2 Sisters’ reputation precedes them. With all the strikes in the previous years in 2 Sisters you can see what kind of company it is. 2 Sisters is not a nice company to work for. It’s horrible coming to work these days. Horrible.”

He added, “The morale on the shop floor is the worst it’s been in 24 years. A number of people have left in the past few months.”

But the strike looks like it could turn things around, with a strong turnout on the picket line.

Arron said, “We had about 150 out on the picket line at its peak. We’ve managed to turn away about seven wagons.”

And David added, “I’ve never been on strike before in my life. Being part of this is fantastic.

“We’re showing the management that we won’t put up with bullying. It’s nice to see people develop a backbone and fight against the bullies.

“The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to them. And that’s what these lot are—bullies.”


This is how 2 Sisters took over

An index measuring food production companies by their turnover showed that Boparan Holdings had shot up from 20th to first place in just five years.

It got there the same way you win a game of Monopoly—by buying everything.

In 2011, 2 Sisters bought up Northern Foods in a deal worth more than £300 million.

Among other factories, the buyout gave 2 Sisters ownership of Pennine Foods, as well as the nearby Gunstones bakery and Fox’s Biscuits.

2 Sisters also bought the RF Brookes site in Newport that same year. It came after a series of acquisitions over the previous five years.

Next came the purchase of Dutch meat company Vion’s British arm in 2013.

By the time it reached the top, 2 Sisters employed more than 20,000 workers across 35 different sites—with a turnover last year of more than £900 million.


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