Evidence of widespread mistreatment and exploitation of migrant and agency workers has been uncovered in the meat and poultry processing sector.
An inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into the standards of meat processing factories – which supply some of the UK’s top supermarkets – and their agencies, revealed that workers had been subjected to physical and verbal abuse and a lack of health and safety protection.
Of the 260 workers who gave evidence to the inquiry, more than eight out of 10 said agency workers were treated worse than directly employed staff, and seven out of 10 said they were badly treated because of their race or nationality.
One-third of the permanent workforce and more than two-thirds of agency workers in the industry are migrant workers.
One-fifth of workers reported being pushed, kicked or having things thrown at them by line managers, and more than one-third had experienced or witnessed verbal abuse.
No toilet breaks
The staff also reported being refused toilet breaks and so having to urinate while on the production line.
There was evidence that some women had been instantly dismissed when they became pregnant, while other pregnant women were forced to continue lifting heavy weights and standing for long periods of time.
Despite this treatment nearly one-third continued to work without making a complaint because they feared it would otherwise lead to them being sacked, but many were also found to have little knowledge of their employment rights.
In light of the findings the EHRC has called on supermarkets to improve their auditing of suppliers and for processing firms and agencies to improve their recruitment practices, working environments and the ability of workers to raise issues of concern.
The equality watchdog also urged the government to provide sufficient resources for the Gangmasters’ Licensing Agency, which aims to safeguard the welfare and interests of workers in the industry.
Neil Kinghan, director general of the EHRC, said: “While most supermarkets are carrying out audits of their suppliers, our evidence shows that these audits are not safeguarding workers and they clearly need to take steps to improve them. The processing firms themselves and the agencies supplying their workers also need to pay more than lip-service to ensuring that workers are not subjected to unlawful and unethical treatment.
“We recognise that some retailers and processing firms have taken steps to operate in a way which improves the treatment of workers in the sector. However, there is still a lot that they and others could do.”
The commission will review action taken on these recommendations over the next 12 months and if not enough progress is made it “will consider using its regulatory powers to enforce change where necessary”.
Earlier in the week Asda announced a deal with Unite union so that agency workers will be paid the same as permanent staff, ahead of the Agency Workers Directive which will be implemented in October 2011.