Workers overlooked in egg industry crisis

Unite branch secretary Tony Gould explains how egg industry crisis - fuelled by bird flu and war in Ukraine - has affected workers

Reading time: 6 min

Dramatic headlines in the newspapers and reports on the radio tell stories about forthcoming egg shortages and price rises, and the impact on farmers and consumers. But they fail to mention how the workers looking after poultry will be affected.

Unite the Union is naturally concerned about the way in which our members are being treated and to some extent, overlooked in the current debate. Poultry workers fear that they will be made redundant and are worried for the future, although we have not had so many who have had the axe come down on them yet.

The way in which the egg and the white meat industries operate ensure that members can often see “the writing on the wall” when their employer fails to re-stock with birds because of the difficult economic outlook — or more dramatically the realisation is very swift if all the flock has to be slaughtered.

A member of ours in Dorset whose job it is to rear chicks from day-old to point of lay has been given long-term but informal notice of being jobless by his employer, who says that he is not getting orders for point-of-lay pullets from egg producers, who themselves fear that they will lose their flock.

Some employers are not being as frank because they do not want the employee to get another job, or else be left without a skilled worker. In some cases the workers live in tied housing. There have been 252 cases of avian flu since the outbreak began in October 2021, with 118 of them occurring since October of this year alone, and so there has been a dramatic recent increase in the incidence of the disease.

There are two factors at work which are spreading uncertainty in the egg industry. The main issue is the outbreak of avian flu, commonly referred to as bird flu, which has always broken out from time to time, but which has become more frequent lately. This is due to modern methods of production which involve breeding birds in one area and transferring them in large numbers elsewhere to be reared for meat or for egg production.

However, the immediate cause of the current infection is the migration of wild birds to Britain where they over-winter from more northerly areas. It is reported that a large number of geese, swans and ducks have been found dead particularly on the north-east coast of Britain. Wild birds may quite easily affect the domestic flock by direct contact and particularly because “free range” eggs are produced by birds which run outside and get access to direct sunlight and fresh air. It can also be spread from faeces dropping from wild birds, which is why chickens have to be kept indoors now.

The other factor is the inflation in grain prices which has arisen from the war in Ukraine. I keep a few hens, and whereas a 20Kg bag of mixed corn cost about £8.80 a year ago, it is now about £13.50. As a result, one of the basic costs of egg production has increased significantly, which has caused farmers to complain.

We in the trade union also have a beef because we believe the supermarkets often use eggs as a “loss leader” resulting in a tightening of margins. This has led to the cost of egg production not being fully reflected in the price paid to farmers. This in turn may lead to redundancy for employees when employers feel that they are forced to give up keeping chicken. The union believes that supermarkets should not be allowed to use some foods as “loss leaders” in this way.

You may ask what is being done to stop the infection spreading. There are precautions in place such that all poultry keepers must keep their birds under cover and cannot let them run outside. This applies even to so called “back-yard” producers like me, who have to keep the birds penned up and cannot let the run around in the garden.

All people coming in contact are urged to regularly wash hands with soap and warm water, wear protective clothing, and of course there have to be restrictions on people coming onto the farm or other places in which chickens are kept. A recent outbreak in County Durham caused all birds to be slaughtered, and a three kilometre protection zone, as well as a 10 kilometre surveillance zone, were set up.

Bird flu, by the way, is said by scientists to be no different in its basic form to the flu that we get. It is possible to limit spread by vaccination but that is not the complete answer because it is not practical to vaccinate wild birds.

Whatever the outcome of the current outbreak of bird flu it looks as though eggs will be more expensive and scarcer in the medium term. There are therefore dramatic effects on consumers — it is reported that some supermarkets are rationing eggs to customers.

Employers are also worried, especially if keeping chickens is the only operation on the farm. But do not underestimate the impact the virus and grain price rises are having on egg packers as well as the men and women who look after chickens on the farm.

By Tony Gould, Unite Branch Secretary, Tolpuddle Food & Agriculture Branch