Equality Commission Report: Meat-processing Workers Given Raw Deal

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has this week published a report of its investigation into Britain’s meat processing industry, which has long been suspected of providing inadequate working conditions for a significant percentage of employees.

In fact, the EHRC’s investigation was originally aimed at identifying potential differences in working conditions between permanent or directly paid employees and those who were hired on a temporary basis or through employment agencies. In the process of achieving its primary objective, the investigation found disturbing evidence to suggest that institutionalised bullying, poor health and safety standards and various other unacceptable or illegal practices affect much of Britain’s meat processing industry.

In respect to the investigation’s primary objective, 260 meat-processing workers gave evidence on their employers and the industry generally, with 80 per cent of those interviewed claiming that agency and temporary workers received significantly poorer treatment than permanent or directly employed members of staff. Unfortunately, the problems identified in the investigation do not end at a discrepancy between agency and permanent employees; although, the issue remains an important one throughout the EHRC’s report.

The investigation found that many pregnant workers in the meat processing industry are forced to stand up for prolonged periods of time without a break and required to endure heavy lifting, while a surprisingly high number of employees told investigators that it was not uncommon for their employers to throw frozen meat produce at them from time to time. Clearly, such issues are likely to give rise to personal injury claims in normal circumstances; however, it would seem that many meat processing factories do not operate in an environment that could be reasonably described as normal.

In fact, the hiring procedures of the industry go some way towards explaining why the sector has not been hit by Health and Safety Executive fines or personal injury claims on a regular basis. The investigation revealed that migrant workers accounted for a third of the permanent workforce and more than two thirds of the temporary or agency workforce. One particularly nasty occurrence highlighted in the EHRC report describes how a group of meat-processing workers had to urinate on themselves after they had been denied access to toilet facilities – an act that is contrary to the most basic human rights.

It is hoped that the EHRC report will draw immediate attention to an industry that desperately needs to revise its ethical standing. Although not all meat-processing firms are bad – Bernard Matthews was actually praised by the report for treating its staff with respect and equality – the industry as a whole cannot escape the criticisms raised by the EHRC.

The Director-General of the EHRC, Neil Kinghan, said: “The Commission’s enquiry reveals widespread and significant ill-treatment in the industry. We have heard stories of workers subjected to bullying, violence and being humiliated and degraded by being denied toilet breaks. Some workers feel they have little choice but to put up with these conditions out of economic necessity. Others lack the language skills to understand and assert their rights. If the situation does not improve over the next 12 months, the Commission will consider using its regulatory powers to enforce change where necessary”. Meanwhile, the TUC’s General Secretary, Brendan Barber, said: “The report raises a number of issues that must be addressed immediately… employers that fail to deal with these health hazards are breaking the law”.

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