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Unite: Christmas dinner misery for migrant workers

Unite uncovers further evidence of abuse of agency poultry workers

Hungarian migrant workers working gruelling 45-hour working weeks have been taking home a miserly £3 an hour preparing turkeys for UK consumption this Christmas, an investigation by Unite:the union reveals today (Saturday, December 22, 2007).

The workers, supplied by major employment agency Butchery and Abbatoir Services to work at Cranberry Foods, a poultry processor based in Burton, believe they were easy to abuse and easier still to fire because they are migrant agency workers.

Unite found that the workers were brought to the UK by an illegal gangmaster and promised work paying at least £7 per hour. They were then supplied to Butchery and Abbatoir Services to work at Cranberry Foods, where they were treated less favourably than British and Polish colleagues. Further, repeated deductions left the workers on the breadline and their accommodation was so miserable some were forced to sleep on towels after lengthy factory shifts until beds were provided. The workers say that regular threats and intimidation from their gangmaster and fear of being forced, penniless, onto the streets ensured they stayed silent about the abuses.

Unite is now representing the workers, taking claims on their behalf to an employment tribunal. Unite is claiming that the workers

* responded to job advertisements in Hungary placed by a gangmaster who was supplying labour illegally to a UK employment agency;

* were forced to pay an arrangement fee of £350 to secure this work. This was deducted directly from their pay packets without the workers' consent, along with accommodation charges of between £36 and £40 per week, transport charges of £8 per week and "cheque cashing" fees of £2 per week. One worker reports taking home just £140 after working a 45 hour week following deductions that he had not sanctioned;

* were paid erratically by their gangmaster, sometimes in the middle of the night, and (until challenged by the Union) always in cash and always an amount far below that stated on their payslips

* endured racial discrimination in their workplace where a two-tier system of treatment was in place with indigenous and Polish workers paid into their bank accounts and offered permanent employment, yet the Hungarians were given more onerous tasks, no security of employment and given cash handouts in brown paper envelopes.

Representing the workers, Unite regional industrial officer Simon Wallace said: "This kind of exploitation puts even Scrooge to shame. Here is an agency and a gangmaster teaming up to build a workforce that is cheap to hire, easy to fire and even easier to exploit so that they were kept penniless, dependent and terrified.

"It would be shameful if these allegations were not taken extremely seriously. We are urging a full investigation by the enforcement authorities into this operation. Where the law has been broken, the full force of the law must be brought to bear on those acting illegally."

Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, said that government must also learn the wider lessons from this case: "When faced with further evidence of the routine abuse of agency workers, and the growing clamour for action on agency abuse, Ministers have no business ruling out legislation on equal treatment for agency workers. Without this, workers cannot defend themselves against abuse and unscrupulous employers will continue to take a sledgehammer to wages and working conditions."

Unite has now lodged claims on behalf of nine Hungarian workers alleging racial discrimination and abuse of employment rights by Butchery and Abbatoir Services and Cranberry Foods.

Unite will also be providing all its evidence to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority so that it may investigate both the conduct of Butchery and Abbattoir, who are licence-holders, and the allegations concerning the activities of the illegal gangmaster responsible for supplying dozens of Hungarian workers to the employment agency.

The claims are likely to be heard by a tribunal next year.

More Articles by Unite - the union (T&G section) ...

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