Andrew Wasley reports on how tough working conditions in the intensive poultry industry are putting consumers at risk
Britain’s poultry sector has, in recent years, come under increasing scrutiny over food safety issues, particularly following revelations that alleged hygiene failings in the production process were fuelling the spread of the potentially-deadly campylobacter bug. Now there are concerns about working conditions for some of those employed in the industry.
To keep the production plants operating and the supermarkets stocked has meant some staff are having to work long hours and on low pay in sometimes appalling conditions on Britain’s farms, and in some abattoirs and processing factories.
It is a situation that poses a health risk for both workers and food safety, as many staff, including migrants, are often recruited on a casual basis and not trained adequately whilst others are fearful of being penalised for taking time off when sick, according to trade unions.
Long hours; hard labour
Problems begin on farms, particularly for those employed to round up – or “catch” – birds for slaughter. Teams of workers typically clear sheds by hand, picking up four or five birds in each hand before loading them into crates. When full, the crates are moved by fork-lift to a waiting truck.
One ex-catcher, who worked for a large integrated company for more than a decade, says the job involved excessively long hours in physically demanding conditions that affected workers’ health. Catchers were expected to meet a quota of at least 5,000 birds a day, he says, although this could sometimes rise to 7,000.
“It’s a horrible job, nobody liked it … you get no sleep. Perhaps you would get home at 11pm, and you would be back on duty at 6am. They were long shifts: 15 hours. It was difficult to get any rest breaks at all. The long-term impact: a lot of people suffered with problems with their backs, deformities in their fingers, they would be bent out of shape.”
Workers who have been employed in processing factories and abattoirs are equally scathing of conditions. “You come in the morning and the product is frozen … You have to touch it when it’s so cold, work with ice, the hands get frostbite. I’ve ruined my health, now I’m disabled,” says one ex-employee of a processing company.
He describes working on some of the production lines in the factory: “I worked in a fridge, I had to take boxes from the conveyer … It’s impossible to keep up because there are around 80 different types of boxes. During the break people working in the fridge are sent to work in a hot room de-feathering chicken. You get hot, covered in sweat, there’s no place to change clothes … and then you are asked to return to the fridge, you get cold again …”
The worker, from Lithuania, also describes what happened when he got ill: “I asked for a day off to go to the doctor and I was told that I had to inform the agency two months in advance … two months in advance I did not know I will get ill.”
Another worker says that during his time at a poultry abattoir, one of the main problems was the speed of the production line: “You’d have a conveyor belt where the chickens were placed on cones which were moving and you’d have a requirement of nine birds per minute to debreast.
“People don’t realise the fact that when they’re getting two for £5 in certain supermarkets, the reason why the supermarkets are able to do that is because of employers who continually drive their workforce’s wages down.”
Injuries and penalties for time off sick
Workers described a range of “routine” health and safety problems in a large processing plant, including operatives being forced to wear filthy overalls; strain injuries caused by having to use blunt knives inadequate for cutting; and malfunctioning cooling systems leading to water dripping directly onto workers.
Injuries connected to poultry production are common: since 2010, 1,173 injuries related to processing have been reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), including 153 incidents classified as “major”. One worker died that year, official figures show.
More than 400 injuries relating to the the farming of poultry were reported during the same period, including 106 major incidents. However, the HSE cautions that the real figures could be much higher. Rick Brunt, head of agriculture at the HSE, says: “We know that there is underreporting of non-fatal injuries in the agricultural sector, and we estimate that only one in five reportable injuries comes to our attention. There is no indication that this is any different in the poultry sector.”
Since 2006, nine of the UK’s largest integrated poultry companies – many supplying leading supermarkets – have received a total of 63 HSE improvement or prohibition notices, although each notice often relates to multiple breaches of health and safety legislation.
Food hygiene in poultry plants has been compromised by employment regimes that have meant staff continue to work on production lines even when sick because of fears they will be penalised for taking time off, according to union sources.
“I’ve worked with a lot [of people] who come in sick, and have been sick, who have had diarrhoea, and they’ve come into work because they’re too frightened to have the time off. You’re not meant to work with chicken, not just with food poisoning, but with normal diarrhoea [for at least 48 hours]. But people are too frightened to take the time off work, because you are disciplined,” one source says.
In one case a worker was disciplined and received an official warning for absence after being hospitalised with the food poisoning bug campylobacter, underscoring, say critics, the harsh employment regimes in place at some factories.
Campylobacter affects about 280,000 people – and leads to around a 100 deaths – annually. Contaminated poultry is a major cause of infection and tests have found that up to two thirds of fresh chicken are affected. Combating its spread has become a priority for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which now publishes contamination rates of supermarket poultry.
A heavy price for cheap chicken
But the drive to clean up production is being hampered by poor working conditions and a lack of training in factories, according to unions. “The [poultry companies] have attempted to throw money at the problem without involving the workers,” according to Sulinder Singh of Unite.
“Health and safety issues, such as bacterial infection, cross contamination […] excessive line speeds and exploitation, such as low wages, all create a climate that strongly mitigates against best practice,” says Singh, who added that the problems were compounded by a largely migrant workforce with poor training and language difficulties.
The poultry industry – which is worth £6bn in annual sales and supports over 73,000 jobs – defends its record. “Companies have campylobacter reduction strategies in place which includes raising awareness amongst employees. Each processing plant also has an FSA campylobacter champion who supports each company,” according to the British Poultry Council (BPC).
“BPC members that use agency labour, use agencies approved by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, although most workers in our sector are employed by members and paid above the national living wage.”
“The companies are also surveyed regularly on ethical processes by third-party auditors on behalf of their retail customers to ensure standards are maintained and improved and as a sector we support the ETI [Ethical Trading Inititative] code of practice,” says the BPC.
Yet experts warn that the vast scale of the poultry industry, and complex supply chains, makes tackling problems difficult.
“A significant problem […] is the business model of ‘just in time’ which requires the supply of large quantities of foodstuffs at short notice, which in turn relies on different agents down the supply chain needing to pull in unregulated labour supplies to fill demands they cannot meet,” says professor Gary Craig of Durham University, who specialises in labour issues.
The ETI’s Peter McAllister says the drive to produce cheap food is ultimately to blame: “[Companies need to ask] what is the sustainable cost of putting chicken on our tables that means the quality is right, the people are treated well and there’s no abuse.”
A version of this story first appeared in The Guardian
Andrew Wasley is an investigative journalist specialising in food and farming issues.