About those sarnies

Front page of the Daily Mail, with the headline "Is there no one left in Britain who can make a sandwich?". Also has a red poppy displayed at the top right, and a picture of the Duchess of Cambridge, a white woman wearing a black hat and coat with a poppy on the lapel.The Daily Mail’s headline today reads “Is there nobody left in Britain who can make a sandwich?” and refers to an Irish-based sandwich making company, Greencore, which is seeking to recruit hundreds of workers from eastern Europe for its new factory in Northampton because it cannot recruit them locally. As is often the case with these stories, however, the story does not match the headline; the firm’s own “human resources” director claimed that the reason was that there was low unemployment in Northampton, although the Daily Mail claims that the rate is 6.8%, and higher in surrounding towns (though I wouldn’t put Luton in that category; it is a good hour’s drive away and is not on the same railway line).

I’ve worked for Greencore; I was driving a fridge truck up and down the M1 over the summer, picking up pallets of sandwiches and other goods from their depot outside Rotherham to be delivered to branches of WH Smith’s at London airports, the Channel Tunnel and various railway stations in the south-east. The pay was good for a class 2 driving job (£10.50 per hour, which is more commonly found in class 1 jobs), although I cannot speak for any of the other staff as I did not ask what they were paid. The issues I had were minor compared with what some of the reports from others who have worked in different plants have said. I was frustrated by the fact that I was expected to negotiate things with the staff or management in Rotherham, such as when the goods were ready by or the arrangement of pallets on the truck, when I was an agency driver and not a Greencore employee. They also attempted to get me to take my break at the Rotherham depot when I was being loaded, but this was never possible as they insisted I help load the truck (I had to know where the different pallets were), and in any case I wanted to use a service station (the nearest of which is five miles away from the depot) as it has proper facilities. The job fell through after I disagreed with the transport manager over start times; he insisted I not come in until 11am on a Sunday (and tried to send me away when I came in before 10am), which would have meant I was late both picking up the goods and going home at the end of the day. He did not factor in traffic delays, which were highly likely as there were two sets of major roadworks on the M1. (The same manager also told me to keep the fridge running, and burning diesel, all the way to Rotherham even though the truck was empty, just in case it did not work when needed or I forgot to turn it on. The truck actually belonged to a fridge truck rental company, Petit Forestier, who would have repaired it in situ or supplied another truck if it broke down.)

Others online quickly searched for reports on what the company was like to work for, and quickly found very negative reports; the company pays a lot of its workers minimum wage or hires cheap agency staff; that there are a lot of foreign workers for the same reason; that they expect staff to work a long period without a break and did not let them leave their work to use the toilet, which had resulted in some people wetting or soiling themselves, that people have their leave cancelled, even in the holiday periods, at short notice and that there are “people suffering from serious stress issues” (see here and here, though you will have to register to see more than one page on the latter). There was also a BBC news report from 2012, in which their union accused the company of exploiting staff at Hull, abolishing certain premium overtime rates (e.g. at bank holidays) and threatening to make staff redundant and replace them with agency workers. If they are paying minumum wage or not much more, it is understandable that people are difficult to find in Northampton because it is within the London commuter belt and so the cost of living is higher than in places like Rotherham. I saw plenty of white British workers at the plants in the north, but mostly foreign workers, even in the office, in London. (I didn’t visit the other plants, like Sittingbourne and Wisbech, so I do not know what goes on there.)

So, the Daily Mail story smacks of lazy journalism, a story intended to demonstrate that Britain is a soft touch for foreign workers, attracting them with better paid jobs than back home with the pay topped up with tax credits and benefits supplied by the public. The truth is that these are subsidies for large companies (usually) who pay poor wages that are not enough to live on, especially in places with inflated costs of living such as in the south-east. The question should be asked as to whether Greencore plans to maintain its factories in places like Hull and Worksop or really intends to transfer its operations southwards and dispose of those pesky unionised workers up north (only time will tell; none of the reports I have seen say that). In that case, there will be a lot of British workers who can make a sandwich, but can’t find a job.

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