The food and drink manufacturing industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK with the meat and poultry sector being a significant part of this. Overall, migrant workers make up 70% of agency staff in processing firms and over one third of their employees.
The EHRC received evidence that agency workers were treated differently to directly employed workers in terms of pay and conditions and their treatment at work.
In 2008 the EHRC used its powers under s.16 of the Equality Act to conduct a formal inquiry. The inquiry gave the EHRC the opportunity to examine how people working in this industry are recruited, and how they are treated once they are at work. Through questionnaires, interviews and consultation with individuals and organisations the EHRC was able to gather broad and authoritative evidence that has formed the base of the findings report.
The inquiry report, published in March 2010, revealed evidence of the widespread mistreatment and exploitation of migrant and agency workers. Significant numbers of workers reported physical and verbal abuse and a lack of proper health and safety protection, with the treatment of pregnant workers a particular concern. EHRC found that 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.
One of the Inquiry recommendations was that EHRC should review the progress made by the sector in 12 months time. In November 2012 EHRC launched the findings of our review "Meat and poultry processing inquiry review" which is a report of the findings and recommendations.
The duty bearers targeted were:
The main objective of the project was to encourage and support change in the sector, including supermarkets, labour providers, processing firms, government, regulators and unions, specifically to improve the working conditions for migrant and agency workers.
The tools chosen were "Legal (enforcement)", "Advice and guidance" and "Engagement and provision of practical support". The EHRC initially used its powers under s.16 of the Equality Act (2006) to conduct a formal inquiry and published the Inquiry report in March 2010 which revealed evidence of widespread mistreatment and exploitation of migrant and agency workers in the sector. It also prioritised engagement with key stakeholders throughout the inquiry in order to fully understand the sector context and make practical, workable recommendations. It reviewed the progress the sector has made 12 months after the report and reviewed the findings in November 2012.
Through the EHRC’s work with the industry since the launch of the Inquiry and the information, the Commission has reviewed there is clear evidence there have been a number of successful developments in the industry.
In November 2012 EHRC launched the findings of the review "Meat and poultry processing inquiry review" which is a report of the findings and recommendations.
The review highlights clear signs of progress, which EHRC is pleased with, particularly in light of the difficult economic environment. There have been significant improvements made in some areas: pregnant workers are treated significantly better, workers are no longer segregated by nationality or suffer physical abuse; British workers interviewed no longer experienced difficulties registering with agencies due to their nationality.
There are still some challenges in some organisations such as management coercion and threatening behaviour. Job insecurity is still too common for agency workers, despite improved legal protection. Although there are clear signs of progress, further action is still needed by processing firms and agencies to ensure that all workers are treated fairly and with respect.
The EHRC’s recommendations from the review of the Inquiry intend to
reduce the causes of vulnerability for all workers, hold organisations to account in meeting equality and human rights standards, promote equality, human rights and good relations.
The recommendations are:
The findings in the report should enable the sector to learn from each other, be able to share good practice to improve the working conditions of agency and migrant workers.