July 29, 2021

Overcoming the challenges for workers in the food and beverage industry to help tackle the staffing shortage

If unions win on pay, job security and working conditions it will resolve staffing shortages, improve food safety and bolster food security, argues Unite the Union General Secretary Candidate, Sharon Graham.

We all know that, as with other areas of the economy, the food and drink sector is currently facing severe staff shortages. The obvious solution to this is to attract workers with secure well paid, safe and secure jobs. But for many years employers in the industry have failed to give workers the pay, terms and conditions they deserve. Instead many have had to deal with bosses engaged in a race to the bottom. This cannot be allowed to continue.

In my manifesto to be the next General Secretary of Unite I have set out how my union’s fantastic reps in this sector can raise standards of pay, job security and working conditions. We will need to invest in organising every major food and drink employer in Britain and Ireland. We also need the shop stewards across all our regions to come together in combines to agree on common bargaining demands. I want to give them the resources to make this happen, to press their demands and to take on the under-cutters who seek to undermine them. And there are no shortage of issues that need to be addressed.

Most obviously, the sector is beset by low pay, mostly at or just above the entirely insufficient National Living Wage. The lengths that some employers will go to in order to drive down pay in the sector has recently been demonstrated by British Sugar. This profitable company’s offer of a real wage pay-cut as a reward for accepting a bigger pay-cut in 2019 is a huge insult. Even worse, Jacobs Douwe Egberts is planning to ‘fire and rehire’ its workforce in order to further increase its profits during a global pandemic. I have a record of working with reps to beat hostile employers like this, using leverage tactics when needed. We need to give our activists all the tools and backing required to defend their pay as well as examine their employers’ finances and structure in-depth pay claims.

Another key problem in the sector is the abuse of agency labour on poorer terms and conditions than directly employed workers. This is all too often a permanent two-tier system. Some exploitative employers in this sector use this system to set workers from different cultural backgrounds against each other, generating misery and division in the workplace and the community. The use of insecure labour also helps bad employers to cut corners. Food workers can more easily be bullied into turning a blind eye to things like workplace hazards and food safety when they don’t have job security. To fight this, we need employers to sign up to and observe proper agency worker agreements, where after clearly defined periods temp workers swiftly transfer to permanent employment.

Sick pay schemes, where they exist, are also not good enough in this industry. Many exclude workers based on service and a whole range of other criteria. As ‘key workers’ during the pandemic, our members have risked their health to keep food on the table. We also know that when there’s no adequate sick pay, workers are less likely to acknowledge symptoms and isolate because they can’t afford to. So, again this needs to be sorted out in everybody’s interest. Who knows what the next infection will be or how it will transmit?

I would also like to see food manufacturers signing up to New Technology Agreements.

Sharon Graham, Unite the Union General Secretary Candidate

The industry is already witnessing a rapid increase in the use of automation in response to the pandemic. We need to bring workers into the decision making process. We need to see upskilling, reskilling and good quality apprenticeships to keep up with technology. We also need to ensure that workers are getting their piece of the pie when it to comes to reaping the benefits of productivity gains.

So, there is a lot to do and I think it is in everybody’s interest that we succeed. Having well paid, safe and secure jobs would not only be good for workers. It would also solve the staffing shortages, improve food safety and bolster food security. We won’t be able to do it without a strong, united union that is focused on the workplace. But that is what I intend to deliver.