Heart Unions week: 'I'm just very stubborn'
In Part 1 of our Heart Unions series this week, we speak to Unite rep David Imre about how he’s recruited hundreds of new members at a poultry factory in Wales
This year’s Heart Unions theme is – every worker needs a union. During this week UNITElive brings you shining examples of how Unite membership has helped people in work and changed their lives for the better.
Today, we look at David Imre, a convenor at 2Sisters Sandycroft poultry processing site in Wales, who has made it his mission to ensure that migrant workers at his site are heard and respected.
David has earned the trust of his workmates and shown them the power that they have when they all stand together – that power has won them a record pay deal!
If there’s a problem, we can fix it
Food processing is one of the most difficult jobs out there.
The hours are long, the pay is meagre and the work itself is not for the feint hearted. It’s no surprise that staff turnover is exceptionally high in meat and poultry factories.
“Even though we’ve had a recognition agreement for many years, we’ve struggled with the membership because it’s such a transient workforce,” said Unite regional officer Brian Troake, of the poultry processing factory in Deeside, Wales.
“People will start work at 8 am as a new employee and they’ll quit by 8.30. The work is enormously physically demanding and the wages and treatment of the workers is so poor,” he added.
Compounding the problem for union organising in the sector is not just one language barrier but dozens.
“At the 2Sisters Sandycroft site, there are 32 different nationalities with almost as many different languages spoken,” said Brian.
Organising predominantly migrant workplaces has been one of the biggest challenges UK trade unions have faced in modern times. But in the last year, Unite members at the 2Sisters Sandycroft factory have shown that nothing is impossible,” he added.
Thanks to the hard work of Unite reps, many of them migrant workers themselves, the 2Sisters Sandycroft site – the largest factory owned by one of the biggest poultry companies in the country – has seen Unite membership skyrocket and with their newfound strength, they’ve just secured an unprecedented pay deal unheard of the sector.
So what’s the secret to David’s success? How has he managed to recruit and help so many migrant workers? “The truth is I’m just very stubborn,” David told UniteLive, laughing.
I don’t leave until the problem is fixed
“When members come to me with problems I go up to the HR office and I don’t leave until the problem is fixed. I’m like glue – I stick around and if you don’t fix my problem I won’t leave.”
Originally from Romania, David moved to the UK in 2016 and joined Unite less than two years ago. Since then, he’s gone from member to rep to convenor, and he’s singlehandedly recruited hundreds of members. In what David called his ‘proudest moment’, he recruited 89 members in a single day.
We need to help them
“You come from a foreign country, you can’t speak the language, you’re often badly treated at work and in the wider community. These people have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. We need to help them,” said David.
David may attribute his success negotiating on behalf of his members to his stubbornness, but his success in recruiting members in the first place is his pure compassion and understanding.
“You need to listen to people,” David explained. “And sometimes that may involve listening to them about their personal lives outside of the workplace. That’s how you build trust. People need to know that you really care. People come to you when they know that you will do whatever it takes to help them.”
David also attributes his success to the fact that he speaks an astounding five languages – Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Portuguese and English. And at a site where 80 per cent of the workforce are migrant workers, such language skills are indispensable.
“Especially when people are angry, scared or emotional, it’s hard for them to communicate in a second language,” David noted. “We need to be able to talk to members in their native language.”
With numbers comes power – and members at 2Sisters Sandycroft have only just begun to realise how much power they can wield when they stand together.
Last year, management dug its heels in when the workforce demanded better Covid health and safety measures. But thanks to the increased membership and the insistence of David and his team of reps, bosses relented.
And now, the members have secured an unprecedented pay deal, where the lowest paid workers – accounting for 40 per cent of the workforce – will see their pay increase by a whopping 6.4 per cent. This takes their pay above the real Living Wage for the first time in the site’s history.
Those working in ‘manual debone’, about a fifth of the workforce, will see their pay skyrocket by over 10 per cent, while those in the ‘kill and hang’ area will see a pay increase of 7.7 per cent. The deal also secures an additional day’s holiday for everyone.
Empowering and inspiring
“Because we’re so strong now with hundreds more members, it’s not been so much of a pay claim this year – it’s more of a pay demand,” Brian explained. “It’s been really empowering and inspiring for people, myself included. It’s not often you go into pay talks with such a strong negotiating position.”
Brian says he is eager to replicate this stunning success at other food processing sites across the UK – and David is hopeful it will happen, as long as migrant workers’ voices are truly heard.
“Finding migrant reps should be at the forefront of our efforts,” he said, adding that migrant reps are also essential because they truly understand the unique migrant worker experience.
Above all, David urged all food production workers to join a union. “The more of us that we are, the more power we have to make big changes in our workplaces,” David said. “If there’s a problem, we can fix it. We’ve proved that it works.”
By Hajera Blagg
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Stay tuned to UNITElive for more on Hearts Union this week