Widespread evidence of the mistreatment and exploitation of migrant and agency workers in the meat and poultry processing sector has been discovered by an Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry.

Workers reported physical and verbal abuse and a lack of proper health and safety protection, with the treatment of pregnant workers a particular concern. Many workers had little knowledge of their rights and feared raising concerns would lead to dismissal. While migrant workers were most affected, British agency workers also faced similar mistreatment.

The inquiry uncovered frequent breaches of the law and licensing standards in meat processing factories – some of which supply the UK’s biggest supermarkets – and the agencies that supply workers to them. It also highlighted conditions which flout minimum ethical trading standards and basic human rights.

However, the inquiry also found examples of good practice with firms treating permanent and agency workers of all nationalities with respect. These firms benefitted as a result, by being able to attract and retain well motivated, loyal and increasingly skilled workers.

As a result of the inquiry, the Commission is making a number of recommendations. They include supermarkets improving their auditing of suppliers; processing firms and agencies improving recruitment practices, working environments and the ability of workers to raise issues of concern; and for the government to provide sufficient resources for the Gangmasters’ Licensing Agency to help safeguard the welfare and interests of workers.

The Commission will review action taken over the next 12 months by supermarkets, processing firms and recruitment agencies, and will consider taking enforcement action if necessary.

The inquiry, which was launched in October 2008, examined the employment and recruitment practices in the sector to identify differences in pay and conditions between agency and temporary workers and employees with permanent or directly employed status.

One third of the permanent workforce and over two thirds of agency workers in the industry are migrant workers. At one in six meat processing sites involved in the study, every single agency worker used in the past twelve months was a migrant worker. This is in part due to difficulties in recruiting British workers to what is physically demanding, low paid work. It may also be due to perceptions amongst employers and agencies that British workers are either unable or unwilling to work in the sector.

More than eight out of ten of the 260 workers that gave evidence said that agency workers 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.

Physical and verbal abuse were not uncommon, with a fifth of workers interviewed reporting being pushed, kicked or having things thrown at them by line managers; over a third of 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.

A quarter of those interviewed said they had witnessed 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.

Despite finding their experience in the workplace distressing and degrading, nearly one third of workers endured this treatment without complaint both because of fears that their work would be terminated as a result and that it would affect their goal of securing stable employment. These workers also had little knowledge of their rights or how to make complaints.

Conversely, the Commission found examples of firms who treated workers, both permanent and agency, of all nationalities with respect and dignity. The supermarkets have an important role in supporting and monitoring their suppliers. However, the findings from the inquiry clearly show that the ethical auditing systems used by supermarkets are not uncovering the mistreatment and that more action is needed.

Based on the findings of the inquiry, the Commission will be making recommendations to the key bodies – supermarkets, agencies, processing firms, government, regulators and unions – to encourage a systemic change in behaviour. These recommendations include:

•Processing firms and agencies to use fair and transparent recruitment practices and provide workers with a safe working environment free from discrimination and harassment, where they are able to raise issues of concern without fear of the consequences.
•Supermarkets to improve their support to and auditing of suppliers
•Government to provide sufficient resources for the GLA to deliver on its task of safeguarding the welfare and interests of workers and broaden its remit to include other sectors where low-paid agency workers are at risk of exploitation.

The Association of Labour Providers (ALP) welcomed the Commission’s report, saying:
“The recommendations merit careful study by government, regulators, supermarkets, labour providers and labour users. The ALP is willing to discuss the issues with the other parties. Some of the recommendations, such as paying workers for travelling time and engaging workers on contracts of employment rather than contracts for services, are not possible unless there is a commitment from retailers and labour users to meet such costs, and past experience suggests that this is unlikely.”

Neil Kinghan, Director General of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said:
“The Commission’s inquiry 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.

“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. If the situation does not improve over the next twelve months, the Commission will consider using its regulatory powers to enforce change where necessary.”