GMB criticises food manufacturer Bakkavör after two Kent workers die from Coronavirus

Frank Rowley discusses Bakkavör’s horrendous track record with workplace Coronavirus safeguarding and GMB’s response.

Through the GMB, union workers at a Covid-hit factory are demanding they get sick pay urgently, claiming it is “the most important” step they can take to eradicate the spread there – while staff at the site say they are scared to go to into work.

The GMB’s calls come after the death of two workers at Bakkavör’s Tilmanstone Salads in Eythorne near Dover this week after testing positive.

Bakkavör, an Icelandic company which makes sandwiches, ready meals, salads and desserts for major supermarket chains including M&S, Waitrose and Tesco, responded that it is now attempting to introduce ‘enhanced outbreak pay’ for staff, but are only able to do what is “economically viable“.

Bakkavör reported that their operating profits from last year were £69,400,000, however they can’t seem to find enough cash to furlough their existing workers or hire more temporary staff to do shorter shifts to minimise exposure.

Infection and self-isolation figures released by Bakkavör and the GMB are conflicting. While the company is trying to save face, on December 4th the union claimed at least 99 employees have tested positive between the start of November and December 3rd.

Bakkavör has a track record of allowing outbreaks in its factories. In August it announced all staff at its Newark dessert factory would be tested after more than 70 positive cases surfaced.

Staff told local media that social distancing was not being followed at the plant, as in this current case.

Even earlier in April, its head of operations was filmed telling workers in North London that they faced losing their jobs if they missed work during the pandemic.

The GMB’s spokesman Frank Macklin said: “Bakkavör Tilmanstone Salads had only experienced a few positive cases of Covid-19 before November, but we have now seen the virus sweep through the factory at an alarming rate in just over four weeks.”

There is an urgent need for Bakkavör Tilmanstone Salads to pay employees their full salary if they have tested positive for covid-19 or have to self-isolate. That’s the most important step they can take to eradicate this outbreak.”

Cash strapped workers told news outlets they are “scared to go to work” but have to attend to get paid.

Workers all feel that safety measures fell short of the required standard before and after the deaths.

One added it’s “too little too late” and the union claims staff were only told to wear masks instead of visors a week before the outbreak. The workers suspect this has also likely contaminated the foods they were preparing and will soon be hit store shelves.

That same worker said “The situation is worsening and it genuinely feels like a hazard going to work with the current inadequate measures and the too little too late nature of the management.”

“I’m currently employed by the agency, meaning that there is no sick pay if I was to have to isolate or indeed caught the virus.”

The above sentiment is no-doubt shared by the two-thirds of all workers who have received no furlough through the entire pandemic, especially the “key workers” who are largely are employed through sub-contractors and are not even afforded the most basic employment rights (they aren’t classified as such legally).

This incident, and others like them, demonstrate in practice how vital unionisation is to workers and their ability to fight back when there lives are quite literally on the line.

Here, only through the GMB union were workers able to submit their demands to management collectively, multiplying their strength to actually challenge the management which are not only wringing them dry of all they produce, but are now wringing their necks to bloat their profits for the next business quarter.

For any Marxist, or any seasoned worker, this is no surprise. COVID in this case has only pushed workers in Britain closer to third world conditions akin to child miners in the Congo or sweatshops textile workers in Bangladesh.

Wherever you go, the pattern of profits before people is the only ‘standard’ that capitalism and all it’s managers, executives and CEOs follow.

We, as a class of working people, will get nowhere towards solving this very obvious crime through individual means. You may be able to negociate privately with your boss for better pay if they’re a pushover, but when it comes to saving your own life, no amount of haggling will save your skin.

Signing petitions, moaning on Twitter, or blaming immigrants are equally useless tactics.

Only together, in a labour union and a revolutionary party, can workers fight for what they more than deserve: the profit they make, their lives and their dignity.

Frank Rowley is a member of the YCL’s Kent Branch

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