This weekend (July 17 – 19) we pay tribute to both the agricultural workers who became the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and today’s agriculture, food production, processing and retail workers, many of whom are Unite members and proud to be recognised as key workers.
The important Thursday applause is, however, seriously undercut by the bitter reality of many working lives.
Low pay, long hours, dangerous work and exploitative employers still dominate working Britain at this time of global pandemic.
Under Covid-19, chronic injustices are exposed by horrifyingly disproportionate impacts and deaths.
The unions’ role in controlling and stopping the spread of the virus has been critical.
While it has been a sector with some very good practice, food and agriculture has also been one of the worst-affected sectors.
Where better health and safety have been won in Britain’s food and agriculture, Unite reps and officers have been behind it, organising with other unions, calling with the Food & Drink Federation for decent standards.
The union premium — unionised workplaces are safer workplaces — has protected Unite members across the food industry where sitting down with respectful employers has minimised risk to workers, ensured full pay and protection for pregnant women and shielding workers, and kept production going.
‘Forced to take action’
However, Unite members in their hundreds have been forced to take action, refusing to work in unsafe conditions, in order to get meat processing employers to act on health and safety.
There have been spikes in positive tests in dozens of food companies across the country, including on farms, leading to shutdowns.
Migrant workers in all parts of food and agriculture, crammed together in accommodation, some costing nearly £100 a week, and hundreds of positive Covid-19 tests proving all too clearly how the virus has thrived on poor living and working conditions.
Unite has fought nationally for the Job Retention Scheme and other protections which have made a massive difference to millions of people.
Across most sectors, unions have been at the table with government, and Unite representations led to major changes in public transport, public services, construction, road haulage, warehousing, manufacturing and many other sectors.
The main exception has been Defra, where unions have not been included.
Together with removing unions from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, this harks back to past violent hostility to unions from farmers and landowners, back to the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Tolpuddle is also an international celebration, and food is global.
Sue Longley of the International Food Workers will tell the Tolpuddle rally at the weekend how workers of the world are being struck down in food and agriculture and have fought back.
United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite’s sister union in the US, closed down meat plants during Covid-19 because they’re too dangerous for workers.
Covid-19 has put food and agriculture workers at the heart of a national and international fight and highlighted all that’s wrong with the food system — dysfunctional, fragile, exploitative, wholly financialised so healthy profits trump healthy food.
Add in Brexit and we have the preconditions for extreme vulnerability on food security and perfect conditions for further labour exploitation throughout the supply chain.
Food and agriculture are a major battleground for Brexit. Under cover of Covid-19, the Tories are pressing ahead with legislation that is potentially ruinous for labour rights, food safety, environmental protection and animal health.
Unite is a member of Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, fighting for amendments Agriculture Bill, steaming through Parliament.
This, the trade Bill, free ports and other legislation need continued scrutiny — to defend against a free trade free-for-all on jobs, rights, equality and safety protections.
Tolpuddle, Burston, the Ascott Martyrs — rural trade unionism has a proud history.
The Dorset farm workers, pioneers of our movement, banished from Tolpuddle to Australia for daring to challenge their bosses, organising a union against pay cuts.
An epic fight in Burston in the heart of rural East Anglia saw village schoolchildren striking in solidarity with their teachers who encouraged them to aspire to a life beyond servitude.
The 1873 Ascott Martyrs’ story is remarkable. In the Oxfordshire village of Ascott-under-Wychwood, a farmer sacked his workers for joining the National Union of Agricultural Workers, employing strikebreakers from nearby Ramsden.
Sixteen Ascott women picketed, urging the Ramsden men to unionise, and were sentenced to prison and hard labour in a case leading to local rioting, questions in Parliament and an eventual pardon from Queen Victoria.
What these heroic struggles show is that, even in remote rural Britain where social, economic and political control is still described as feudal by Unite members, workers do fight back and can win.
Make no mistake — Unite is working tirelessly for the rights of all workers, wherever they live and work.
And as we remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs this weekend, we continue to fight back against tyranny and struggle for justice.
By Diana Holland, Unite assistant general secretary for transport, equalities, food and agriculture
- This comment first appeared in the Morning Star, July 18