≡ Menu

Put yourself in an agency worker’s (pre-worn, ill-fitting and sweaty) shoes

As a provider of SMETA Ethical Audits, we’re pleased to say that the vast majority of manufacturers and processors we visit have the requisite systems in place to enable them to have a successful ethical audit. However, it seems it’s certainly not the case everywhere.

Channel 4 programme reveals unethical practices

On last week’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme, a reporter went undercover in a bakery and within just five days of work he filmed enough evidence to make compelling viewing. This particular manufacturer , which supplies the majority of large retailers, was allowing practices to take place which were distinctly unethical, not to mention a disregard for basic food hygiene.

The report showed agency workers, many of whom were migrants, being bussed into factories only to be told that there was no work for them that day. Since the factories were in remote locations the workers had no option but to wait for the duration of a shift until the bus returned to ferry them home again.

Report showed ‘hot-booting’ and dirty clothes worn in food factory

Similarly, if they arrived for work to find that their safety shoes had been stolen, they would have to either ‘borrow’ another pair of shoes from someone else, pay for a new pair or not work that shift. This would mean that they would not be paid, despite the fact that they had left their shoes in a padlocked cage.

This practice of ‘hot booting’ is not uncommon, but there is a certain lack of dignity attached to stepping into the sweaty, wet boots or shoes of someone who has just completed a shift. Moreover, often the footwear is the wrong size, causing discomfort, or soiled because there has not been time to clean and disinfect between shifts. The same is sometimes true of other PPE such as overalls, gloves, hats etc. with agency workers having to borrow items of clothing or work without. In cold environments there have been reports of agency workers not receiving lined gloves or bodywarmers. Using dirty PPE is not only unpleasant for the workers, but also constitutes a food safety violation.

Safety training, what’s that?

In the Dispatches programme it was revealed that casual workers at the bakery packaging plant were given no safety training or relevant protective equipment. Despite signage denoting that hard hats and ear protectors must be worn, none was provided. Furthermore no fire drill training was given and a fire exit was actually blocked by machinery!

Other film footage showed food dropped on the floor being sent for repackaging; broken machinery held up by crates and supervisors clambering onto conveyor belts to fix machinery in order to keep to breakneck production speeds.

Clearly, despite inquiries and ethical guidelines, some employers are still exploiting agency workers and putting their health and the health of the end consumer at risk in the process. There are one million people working in retailer supply chains and nearly half a million on zero hours contracts. Migrant workers often can’t speak English, so can’t complain and even if they can speak the language, they are afraid to complain in case they lose their job.

The Groceries Supply Code of Practice

The supermarket price wars might mean that we can buy goods at discounted prices, but at what cost to others? Cutting the end price often means a squeeze at every stage of the supply chain – farmers’ prices are forced down, processors have to deliver more for less and ultimately the worker within the chain is the one who suffers most.

In order to try to combat this, the Government introduced the Groceries Supply Code of Practice in 2010. This says that large retailers should:

  • Deal with their suppliers fairly
  • Not vary trade agreements retrospectively
  • Pay suppliers within a reasonable time

The government also appointed a Groceries Code Adjudicator who has the power to:

  • Arbitrate disputes between retailers and suppliers
  • Investigate complaints from suppliers
  • Name and shame retailers who break the rules
  • Impose fines in the worst cases

Of course, as with any other initiative, such as the GLA Licensing Standards, it can be difficult to enforce. In the Channel 4 documentary it transpired that 79% of suppliers surveyed said they had been subject to practices running counter to the Groceries Supply Code. Almost 60% of these feared retribution if they complained.

Make sure your company is operating ethically

At Verner Wheelock we can help your company to improve your knowledge and understanding of ethical trading through our ethical trading workshops and consultancy services, or, by carrying out your SMETA ethical audit.

For those unfamiliar with ethical audits the focus is on the welfare of the workers. As well as a factory tour which acts as a health and safety check also, the audit involves worker interviews and a document check to make sure contracts of employment are in place, for example, and that workers are being paid at least minimum wage, paid on time and issued with a pay slip, and working no more than 60 hours per week.

There is no ‘pass or fail’ and the audit is viewed as a process of continuous improvement. Many of our clients have an audit every two years and it is good to see H&S standards and the working conditions of food industry workers improving over time.

To find out more, click here, or speak to Alison Wheelock on 01756 700802.