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    Hue and cry over workers’ pay and condition in meat industry

    Representative iStock image

    Retail unions are calling for a Europe-wide ban on the use of subcontracted workers kept on lower pay and conditions in the meat industry. 

    UK and European leading supermarkets declared today (29) that they will cut ties with any meat suppliers that did not meet their ethical standards after a report emerged recently highlighting widespread exploitation suffered by workers in meat plants across Europe.

    British Retail Consortium (BRC), a representative body for UK retailers, including supermarkets and food-to-go restaurants, said companies carry out ethical audits of the suppliers they work with and act on any information received through whistleblowers and investigations. 

    “BRC members are committed to upholding high standards of welfare for all people who work in their supply chains through audits and evidence-based investigations. Any practices that fall short of their high standards will not be tolerated,” Andrew Opie, BRC’s director of food and sustainability, said.

    Dutch food retail association Centraal Bureau Levensmiddelenhandell (CBL) also emphasised that it was important to supermarkets in the country that safe and secure working conditions were present in their supply chains.

    It was alleged in a Guardian report on Tuesday (28) that migrant workers in meat industry suffer abusive conditions, especially in Netherlands. The report has also found some supply chain employees had concerns about speaking out, inadequate sick pay and difficulty in meeting living costs in some instances.

    Europe’s meat industry is a multi-billion pound powerhouse, employing about one million people. But unions estimate that thousands of workers in some countries are precariously employed through subcontractors and agencies, with some earning 40 per cent to 50 per cent less than employees in the same factories, claimed the report, which pointed out how the meat industry across Europe – including the UK – has become reliant on outsourced labour, with a two-tier employment system.

    Europe’s meat industry came into focus in 2020 when plants became hotspots for coronavirus transmission. Precarious workers were particularly vulnerable, as many say they did not have sick pay and they feared for their jobs if they could not work because of illness. In addition, substandard accommodation – often cramped, squalid conditions – made social distancing or self-isolation extremely challenging.

    Many retailers reacted the report’s findings by saying that they follow the BRC’s anti-slavery protocols for supermarkets. Morrisons and Marks & Spencer both highlighted public commitments to tackle modern slavery, with Marks & Spencer pointing to a review of its working practices carried out earlier this year by Oxfam.

    KFC claimed that high- or medium-risk suppliers are audited and, “if they don’t pass the audit, we just won’t work with them – it’s that simple”.

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