Vittles 6.3

"Don’t call us heroes": Life on a Production Line

I wrote an article for the Guardian over the weekend about the restaurant industry, partially in response to the nostalgia pieces popping up left, right and centre (can you have nostalgia for a month ago?) which seem to infer that restaurants, but particularly more restaurants and more growth and more investment, are an unqualified good. Some people have made a lot of money from this idea - weirdly they overlap with the authors of these pieces. In the end, I decided to keep my scope entirely within the topic of restaurants but, leaving out some particulars, anything I said is fully isomorphic to almost any other part of the food sector, and ultimately every area of society. Can the question of high rents can be answered without completely rewriting how people profit from the ownership of land?; can systemic labour issues be solved by anything but an inversion of the pyramid?

The last few weeks have shone a light into sectors of work which, before this happened, were almost completely ignored. The issue of who picks and harvests our food rarely makes the news, outside of the Morcambe Bay disaster, a disaster which was very quickly forgotten. Now many people are learning that the food chain relies on the work of Eastern European labourers who have been repeatedly demonised by our media. The work done by supermarket workers, so often written off as skilless, interchangeable labour, is being seen in a new light. Don’t think for a minute that means things will change when normality, if normality resumes, without some real effort. And outside the restaurants, outside fresh produce, we live off ready meals and other packaged foods, branded with the names of supermarkets. But who produces them?

Bakkavor is a name many people wont have heard of until recently. Like some of the most powerful names within the industry, that generally means they’re doing a good job at staying out of the news. Now they’re hitting headlines. They made the papers last week after a manager was filmed telling workers that anyone who stayed home to prioritise their health would be sacked. Then Vice released an investigative piece this week documenting a culture of bullying. Of course the line when these things happen is always ‘the managers will have to be retrained’ ‘mistakes will be learnt from’. But having read the Vice article and the following piece, it’s clear a culture does not change from retraining workers. The problem is the system.

Today’s newsletter is written by a member of Angry Workers, a collective of people who have dedicated their working lives to changing this system from the inside, observing it and embedding themselves in it, trying to change minds one by one. The member who wrote this has been working at Bakkavor for the last four years and has witnessed first hand how these places operate and are designed to wear workers down, keeping them disempowered. For their safety they have asked to be anonymous. The sacrifice involved to do something like this is beyond the imagination of most of us, even those who organise, so if you wish to support them in any way, even if its just by buying their book, then there are links at the end of this piece on how to help.

“Don’t call us heroes”: Life on a Production Line, by Angry Workers

The coronavirus crisis has brought the role of food – where it comes from, who makes it, how it gets to our fridge – into sharp relief. Having worked at the Bakkavor ready-meal factory in west London for the past four years, I have an insider’s perspective. This factory supplies all the major supermarkets, making low (Aldi) to high-end (M&S) food – everything from dirty fries to hummus, lasagnas to posh little pastries like chicken and chorizo empanadas – along with countless other products that serve other time-poor workers along the income spectrum. 

My factory hit the headlines last week when a secret recording was released of a manager threatening people with the sack if they didn’t turn up to work. Almost half the workforce were off sick, worried about catching coronavirus in a workplace that had made only minimal efforts to protect them. But I didn’t find this turn of events surprising, given what I’d experienced of Bakkavor’s toxic culture.

I originally chose to work there for two reasons: I needed to pay my rent, and I wanted to work somewhere I found politically interesting. I wanted to ‘organise’ with my co-workers, to try and build some shop-floor power amongst a largely migrant workforce, to see how the work was organised and what opportunities and barriers to workers’ power existed in – in this case – the ‘essential’ sector of food production. Over the last 20 years, real wages have fallen and conditions have gotten worse, pulled back to statutory minimums. Strikes are few and far between, symptomatic of a lack of pushback against the expansion of the low-waged sector in the UK since 2008. Why is class struggle at such a low ebb? And what can we do about it?

As soon as I passed through the turnstiles, things were rough and tough. As an agency worker, you were literally taken from the street and placed on an assembly line, given minimal, if any, instructions and left to get on with it. A squeezy bottle with a flour and water mix was thrust into my hands and for the next few hours I would be doing nothing other than dribbling out the mix onto each pastry, one every second or two.I never realised how labour intensive this kind of work was – how every piece of every layer of moussaka was assembled by hand, every pastry folded by fast fingers. All this talk of ‘automation’ is a bogeyman; companies aren’t going to invest in new machinery when the cost of labour is so cheap. They could probably whack the price up even more if they labelled this stuff ‘handmade’, which it technically is, but then I guess it would invite a look into what kind of ‘handmade’ – it definitely doesn’t fit with the artisanal and ‘made with love’ image that you would normally associate with such a term.

Not all food workplaces are so downtrodden – but there is something about how this kind of work is organised that lends itself to bad behaviour and repressive practices. Firstly, the whole thing about line work is that it enforces a passivity onto you – you have no control over the speed of the line and so you’re always working to someone else’s schedule. You can’t break out of it unless you want to seriously piss off everyone else down the line who’ll be affected if you fuck up or bow out. Being chained to one spot, with no autonomy, slowly robs you of something as the months and years go by. After around four months I realised that my gait had changed, my shoulders slumped forward, I felt more subservient, my fate controlled by the arbitrary commands of some idiot middle manager who thought he was better than me just because he wore a different coloured hairnet. 

Then there was the needless hierarchy, rudeness, shouting, threats, and orders to not talk to your co-workers, punctuated by the odd round of singing as groups of older women tried to regain some dignity and sanity. I don’t want to say that all workers were victims, but many decided to stay silent in exchange for the chance to do overtime, which was sometimes the only way they could make ends meet. That said, you could push back against the ever-increasing demands for ‘efficiency’ – in other words, getting those Waitrose ready-meals up on the shelves for you in the quickest, cheapest way possible. If someone did push back, they mostly did so individually, but I remember once when a group of workers in the hummus department all collectively refused to come to work on a bank holiday because they were pissed off at the company’s meagre pay offer. Another group of late shift workers did a ‘walk in on the boss’ to hand in a petition signed by 50 of them, demanding the same entitlements as the day shift. But these more collective expressions were irregular. 

Most food factories are staffed by migrant workers, largely from Eastern Europe, and this needs to be considered when we think about their chances to stand up and start demanding more from these multi-million pound companies. If you’re a Polish butcher working in an abattoir, you might have a greater sense of power because of your ‘skill’. If you’re younger and more mobile, you might not stand for the lack of respect as easily as an older woman whose life is at this point limited to their waged job and family commitments. 

But all people change, given the right situation. Some people think that ‘being unionised’ creates this ‘right situation’, but I think this is naïve. My factory, like many food factories, already has union recognition – but this has hindered, rather than aided, workers’ power. Most workers, especially the women, were still languishing at the bottom end of the wage scale, 16p above the minimum wage. Now the National Minimum Wage has superseded that, so they are on minimum wage again. Having been a member and shop steward within the mainstream unions, I can safely say that the union structures themselves are pretty rotten. Reps are often handpicked either by management or the self-serving incumbent reps. Many reps are managers themselves, undermining the trust workers have in them to be on their side in a dispute against management. Reps are bought off and given perks that make them reluctant to rock the boat. Unions partner with management to preserve their recognition agreements. When the union feels it’s losing its grip on control they suppress workers’ own initiatives. In my factory, the union actively participated in the development of a new skill grading structure that not only divided the workforce, but sold out all the women assembly line workers by regarding them as ‘unskilled’ and putting them on the lowest pay. 

I came to realise that being in a union and having a real and collective strength in a workplace are two entirely different things. A real collective strength requires encouraging workers’ own actions – for them to start relying on themselves and each other rather than waiting around for ‘the union’ to sort things out for them, and then being disappointed when they don’t. To think about their own power and how to use it directly to put pressure on management, without necessarily having to put their heads above the parapet and be singled out for victimisation. To create their own independent structures. There is strength in numbers, but the workplace is divided in so many ways that this can’t be fixed overnight with a simple call for ‘unity.’

Coronavirus has given some groups of migrant workers a rightful sense of outrage at the blatant disregard for their health, despite their now lauded status as ‘unsung heroes’. Just last week, a group of Romanian workers at the 2 Sisters meat factory in Devon refused to come into work en masse to protest against their pay and conditions, and it isn’t a coincidence that this has happened at a time when they’re being asked to ‘serve the country.’ It is telling that many of the walkouts have been ‘unofficial’, meaning undertaken through workers’ own initiatives, rather than through unions. But in my factory, workers are suspiciously silent, cowed over the years by the bullying and intimidating atmosphere, and the lack of experience of fighting and winning together. It’s worthless to be labelled as ‘heroes’ or even ‘essential’ workers when in reality this doesn’t translate into even a basic level of respect – the expression of which would be higher pay and the confidence to demand better terms and conditions, especially in these scary times. 

‘Heroes’ are expected to go above and beyond, and risk their lives for the benefit of others. ‘Heroes’ don’t expect recognition or a wage set to a level that actually corresponds to the social necessity of their work. ‘Heroes’ can just be applauded for their altruistic ways and we don’t have to question a world where people who work in the City, or in advertising, are valued exponentially more – both financially and in terms of social status – than the people who actually make it go round. So let’s ditch all this ‘hero’ talk and instead let’s think about why the people who make the meals you eat, who are on the bottom rungs of the labour market, are really continuing to put their lives at risk. It’s not heroism. They just don’t have a choice.

This article was written by a member of Angry Workers who works at a Bakkavor factory in London. For an in-depth look into the food industry from a workers’ perspective – from where food comes from to the role of unions and how to organise beyond them – check out their new book – https://pmpress.org.uk/product/class-power-on-zero-hours/

The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/ . Ada was also paid for her work.

Also, a huge thanks to Eli Lee for vital edits.