Salute to our food workers

Unite hails ‘unsung heroes’ working to keep the country’s stomachs full

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For many people the coronavirus outbreak did not hit home until they tried to go shopping and were met with empty shelves and eerie aisles. 

Fortunately, panic buying seems to have abated, but it quickly became apparent that food and drink production workers where an essential part of the country’s response to the epidemic. 

Like other key workers, those in the food and drink industry are facing increased risk of exposure to Covid19 in order to look after the many.  

With around 70,000 members in the food, drink and agriculture (FDA) sector, it fell to Unite’s representatives and activists to ensure that workers were not an afterthought in their employers’ response to the crisis. 

These efforts have been an overwhelming success, said Joe Clarke, Unite’s national officer with responsibility for the food and drink production sector. 

He said: “Over the past few weeks there has been excellent levels of dialogue and cooperation between Unite and employers within food and drink production on behalf of thousands of members, who are the unsung heroes in the nation’s fight against coronavirus. 

“Many employers have stepped up to the plate. They have engaged constructively with Unite to put really good safety and social distancing measures in place as well as providing 100 per cent sick pay for those who need to self-isolate either because they or a family member are symptomatic or have an underlying health vulnerability. Many have also put extra support in place for those with childcare responsibilities.

“These successes would not have been possible if workers in the sector were not organised and backed by strong trade unions.”

Nestle, Kraft Heinz, Heineken, Princes Foods, Molson Coors Brewery, Coca Cola and McVities are all examples of companies deserving of praise for their treatment of workers during the pandemic, said Clarke. 

There have also been firms that have not treated their workers fairly, or have put their safety at risk. Where this has happened Unite has used all available avenues to ensure the best interests of its members and will continue to do so, said Clarke. 

“To those employers the message is clear: Follow the example of those firms who have worked with Unite during the pandemic to ensure that your staff are kept safe and treated well. If you fail to do so, Unite will not rest until you comply,” he said.

A case in point is workers in the meat sector, who have faced particularly difficult conditions around social distancing. As part of the union, members in a number of meat sector workplaces acted collectively to demonstrate to their employers that they were not willing to work unsafe conditions. By standing together, they made sure their employers implemented proper safety and social distancing protocols. 

Overall, however, Clarke said that most of the major food production companies have responded well from the beginning.

He was also clear that it is the food industry’s workers who deserve the most praise, saying that without their willingness to go the extra mile the sector would not have been able to respond to the crisis as well as it has. 

“Across the food industry staff have expressed excellent levels of flexibility to keep the nation fed,” said Clarke.

“I would like to pay credit to the sector’s membership for their selflessness and hard work, as well as to union’s representatives and activists, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that our members have been properly looked after.”

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