Workers at Asda supermarket depots have told Socialist Worker that the company is running risks with food safety.
Members of the GMB union at Asda depots are balloting this week over strike action for union recognition. They say that it is not just the working conditions of Asda staff that are under attack by the anti-union company, but the condition of the food.
The company says its systems are safe and that it maintains high standards of health and safety, but workers accuse management of allowing frozen food to stand in the open air for hours after it had been delivered to stores.
Eddie, a GMB union steward from the Midlands, told Socialist Worker, “It is because of the just-in-time system. The food arrives almost as it is needed.
“Asda has the minimum room in the shops for storage because it takes up space that can be used for selling. The reality is there isn’t enough room to take the deliveries. Think of the hot weather we have had recently. Then think of frozen food sat in the sun.”
Drivers working in Asda depots in the north west of England say that food delivered to stores was sometimes left out for up to two hours before being placed in refrigerators.
One shop steward has made an official complaint to the company that frozen and chilled food was left out at the Gateshead store for six hours one day in May. He says he saw the food at 5pm and that shop staff had shown him a log revealing that it had been delivered at 11am.
Mick, a steward in Bristol told Socialist Worker, “We timed one load of frozen food being left outside in the sun for two hours 45 minutes. We have photos of seagulls picking at the packaging. The food was then taken into the store to be sold.
The workers point out that “checkers” at warehouses, who monitor the dates and rotation of stock, have been axed and the quality of training on food hygiene and trading standards has been cut.
These practices are not an accident but a deliberate strategy. In the management document, Warehouse Chip Away Strategy, the company outlined how Asda planned to drastically undermine labour standards.
The document proposed cutting breaks and removing the right to take individual grievances to external arbitrators.
It introduced “single man loading” for jobs involving lifting, despite admitting that the company’s own risk assessment says two people are required for such tasks. Line managers are advised to “lead by example, not taking all the breaks that hourly paid colleagues get” in order to “take credence away from breaks”.
A driver at the company’s Wigan depot called Asda’s health and safety policies an “absolute farce” after photographing teetering pallets stacked up in the back of his vehicle.
He said that such massive piles of goods regularly collapsed, putting staff in danger. The driver says that this was due to direct orders from management to increase the number of cases on the lorries, thus saving costs by not needing to send out as many loads.
“It goes to show how much we are worth to Asda, because they are putting profits well above our health and safety,” he said.
One incident at the Grangemouth distribution depot involved the jamming of the “dead man pedal” on a forklift truck to keep it moving as workers rushed to pick boxes from the shelves.
The truck is designed not to work unless the worker’s foot is on the pedal which means that the worker has to keep getting on and off the truck. According to a steward at the Falkirk depot, “Management denied that a switch had been held down on the lift truck, but we’ve got pictures on the wall showing it.
“We’ve had lots of stewards who have been threatened with losing their jobs. They’ve been pulling people aside and intimidating them. Health and safety is being breached in an attempt to cut corners to meet unsafe work targets.”
Another steward told Socialist Worker, “In Wigan one of our members had an accident. A senior shop steward asked to do a health and safety inspection on the conveyor involved.
He was refused. He reminded the manager of health and safety act obligations. When he returned the next day he was told he faced disciplinary action for challenging a manager.”
Inside the depots, management are constantly pushing to increase the daily work load.
According to Geoff, a rep from Skelmersdale, “Staff levels are cut to the bone to maximise profit. They want two workers to do the job of three. At our depots we have to lift 6,000-10,000 kilos a shift. Asda pays minimum wages but wants 200 percent from workers.”