Socialist Alternative

Key food workers continue the struggle for safe working conditions at Greencore

“Monday’s announcement of the implementation of a national lockdown once again demonstrated that the real power in society lies, not with government, but with the organised forces of the working class,” explains Baker’s Union regional organiser George Atwall. “The government should have acted much earlier to prevent the viruses spread, but they failed, as they have failed all workers throughout this pandemic.”

Indeed, government failure remains the norm, and the lives of many of our countries’ critical/key workers are still being given short shrift as the government refuses to support measures that promote workplace health and safety. There is a reason why our country has had one of the highest per capita fatality rates in the entire world – surpassing even the tragedy that have befallen the people of the United States of America – and it has everything to do with the Tories, which isn’t helped by the appalling ‘opposition’ being offered to the government by the capitalist leaders of the Labour Party.

Greencore Food Group however provides a perfect example of the way in which profiteering has been allowed to continue to trump the safety concerns of their low-waged critical workers during this pandemic. Thus, at the same time that their factories continue to produce food for so-called ‘caring’ and ‘ethical’ companies like M&S, they continue to be run in a dangerous manner that threatens the health and safety of everyone.

When an outbreak resulted in the closure of Greencore’s Northampton site last August, the bosses and public health authorities immediately moved to blame the viruses rapid spread on everything other than their unsafe and densely populated factories. This shifting of the burden of blame is very much like the way the government lied about the spread of Covid-19 within schools. In the case of schools’ government officials ignored workers and their trade unions and persisted in blaming soaring infection rates on anything other than packed classrooms… until Monday that is when the workers forced the government into their latest U-turn.

Even now, at this late stage in the pandemic — with Northampton moving into Tier 4 at the end of the year – Greencore bosses and Northampton’s Director of Public Health continue to blame and punish workers for the spread of the virus.

At the start of 2021 Greencore took the bizarre decision to terminate the use of ‘Covid-19 Marshall’s’ within their Northampton factories – the Marshall role representing a safety critical position whose duties were performed by representatives of the Baker’s Union, a union whose members vigilance has done wonders to help improve site safety. One immediate effect of the removal of such safety Marshall’s has meant that managers had free reign to speed up production lines, which some did with immediate effect, making an already difficult and stressful job for our countries key workers almost impossible to carry out. [Update 18/01: Good news. As a direct result of the actions taken by members of the Bakers Union the Covid Marshall’s have now been reinstated.]

Lucy Wightman, who serves as Northampton’s Director of Public Health, likewise continues to spread misinformation about the roots of Greencore last major covid outbreak – an outbreak that saw nearly 300 workers test positive. Only yesterday she featured in the local press, where once again she was quoted as singing the virtues of Greencore’s safety measures. In doing so Wightman completely erases the role that the Baker’s Union and their members played in forcing Greencore to adopt any meaningful form of health and safety precautions at the start of the pandemic, and the unions inspiring role in forcing the closure of their Northampton site when the major outbreak occurred in August.

As you might expect the local Director of Public Health still blames workers not Greencore bosses for the viruses spread. Wightman of course reminds people that the “employer was really co-operative” but she is yet to even talk to the Baker’s Union reps about Greencore’s underwhelming record on promoting health and safety on the factory floor.

These problems are not unique to Northampton, and when in mid-December Greencore experienced yet another serious covid outbreak in Nottinghamshire, the local Director of Public Health again had only positive things to say about Greencore safety protocols.

But critical workers in food factories across our country are not being adequately protected by their employers. This much was made apparent in “Doctors in Unite” report that focused on the particular transmission problems illustrated by the mismanagement involved in the Greencore case. It is also why the Trades Union Congress (TUC) subsequently released a press release (at the end of November) that warned that “People working in food plants already face a higher chance of contracting Covid-19 due to the lack of airflow, lack of social distancing and low temperatures.” And they were clear that “current workplace safety guidance for food production is ‘out-of-date’” and that “food processing factories could become ‘super spreaders’ of Covid-19 in the run up to Christmas.”

Socialist Alternative stands full square in solidarity with all workers in their fight against all capitalist vultures in their ongoing struggle for better working conditions. No workers should lose out because of this pandemic. All workers who are furloughed must received 100% of their pay, as should all parents who are required to stay at home to look after their children during this period of school closures.

The last word however should be left to George Atwall from the Baker’s Union. “Throughout this pandemic our reps and members at Greencore have stood together and acted courageously in demanding fair treatment from their bosses. They have won important victories and as a result union membership at the Northampton site has grown enormously. If this pandemic and the recent victory by the education unions has shown us anything it is that it is only through collective struggle that workers can improve the lives of the entire working-class.”