The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation revealed that employees in the sectors were subject to physical and verbal assaults, denied basic rights and felt victimised on racial grounds.
Some 20 per cent made allegations of being pushed, kicked or having things thrown at them by line managers. The lack of health and safety protection and the maltreatment of pregnant women were highlighted as of particular concern. While migrant workers were most affected, British agency workers also faced similar mistreatment.
The probe uncovered “frequent breaches of the law and licensing standards” in meat processing factories and the agencies that supply them. It also flagged up conditions that “flout minimum ethical trading standards and basic human rights”, said the EHRC.
However, the inquiry also stressed it found examples of “firms treating permanent and agency workers of all nationalities with respect”.
The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) condemned such instances of maltreatment. Director Stephen Rossides told FoodProductionDaily.com the organisation would be meeting with the EHRC tomorrow to discuss how to tackle the problem and clarify how widespread it had found the practices to be.
“The instances of illegal, unethical, unfair and degrading practices which the report has found in some parts of the industry are completely unacceptable in a modern food industry and in our society,” he said. “While the report also highlights good practice in other parts of the industry, the issues raised by the report are a matter of concern to everyone in the industry. The BMPA and its members will want to engage with the EHRC, other relevant agencies and with other parts of the industry in order to address these important issues.”
The British Poultry Council welcomed the report’s recommendations and said it would contribute to any task force set up to stamp out the abuse. It added that “an operator who persistently flouts the law should not be permitted to tarnish the reputation of those companies that are committed to responsible employment”.
The EHRC has given the agencies which recruit industry staff, the meat processing industry and the supermarkets they supply 12 months to address the problem or face possible enforcement action from the statutory agency.
“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”, said EHRC director Neil Kinghan.
It further urged the government to provide cash to the Gangmasters’ Licensing Agency to help safeguard the welfare of workers.
The inquiry, launched in October 2008, found that over a third of the 260 workers interviewed said they had experienced or witnessed verbal abuse, often on a daily basis.
“Workers also reported being refused permission to take toilet breaks, and subsequently urinating or bleeding on themselves at the production line,” added the report.
Some 25 per cent of those giving evidence reported mistreatment of pregnant workers - such as the instant dismissal of agency workers who had announced they were pregnant. Pregnant women were also forced to continue to undertake work that posed risks to their health and safety, including heavy lifting and extended periods of standing, said the EHRC.
The report also investigated any differences in pay and conditions between agency and temporary workers, and those permanently and directly employed by meat and poultry processors.
More than 80 per cent workers said that agency staff were treated worse than directly employed workers. Seven out of ten workers said they thought they were treated badly in factories or by agencies because of their race or nationality.
Almost one third of workers did not complain both because of fears that their work would be terminated as a result and that it would affect their goal of securing stable employment, said the EHRC, adding staff had little knowledge of their rights or how to make complaints.
One third of permanent employees and over two thirds of agency workers in the industry were migrant workers. At one in six meat processing sites examined, all agency staff used in the past year had been migrant workers.
“This is in part due to difficulties in recruiting British workers to what is physically demanding, low paid work,” said the Commission. “It may also be due to perceptions amongst employers and agencies that British workers are either unable or unwilling to work in the sector.”
Many of the plants supply some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets, and the Commission has called on the retailers to improve their auditing of their suppliers. It has also urged meat processors and agencies to overhaul recruitment practices, working environments and the ability of workers to raise issues of concerns.
The Association of Labour Providers (ALP) welcomed the report proposals but doubted the commitment of processors and retailers to agree to recommendations such as paying workers’ travelling time and the granting of employment contracts.