‘You can change everything in this factory…’

Eight hundred members later, Dave and Istvan Imre prove the power of belief

Reading time: 6 min

In his office, ‘man make-up’ immaculate as ever Romanian-born Unite rep Dave Imre lays out scores of filled out membership forms, casually cooling himself with a flamenco fan.

“These are from August alone,” he says, beaming.

In a major recent achievement, Dave and Istvan signed up every single worker who transferred to the Sandycroft factory after a 2Sisters site in Llangefni shut down.

But more on that later…

UNITElive spoke to Unite 2Sisters convenors and cousins Dave and Istvan Imre separately, but they might as well have been in the same room.

They both spoke of their psychic connection – how they can read each other minds without a word spoken. They both described their negotiating strategy in the very same words – Dave is ‘good cop’ and Istvan is ‘bad cop’. And both unprompted, they tell us the precise dates they arrived in the UK as migrant workers from Romania – March 18, 2015 and May 16, 2016.

Istvan came first. As a waiter in Romania on very low pay, like so many migrant workers, he came to the UK seeking a better life and better wages.

“But I also came because I wanted to live in a country where I can be whoever I want to be,” he said.

Both Dave and Istvan are gay, and although Istvan was open with his family and close friends, widespread homophobia in Romania meant he had to hide who he was at work and in public.

With the help of his sister and brother-in-law who were already living in the UK, Istvan arrived and soon after started work at the 2Sisters poultry plant in Sandycroft, Wales.

“Before I came to the UK, I thought I spoke English well. In Romania, we learn English from watching television. Everyone on the TV speaks clearly and without a strong accent. In the UK, I couldn’t understand anyone.”

The language barrier was only the first of many struggles.

“Conditions in the factory were horrible. It was freezing cold on the line. There were no toilet breaks. We were always being shouted at. The line was so fast and if you didn’t keep up with your targets, you were threatened. We didn’t have anyone to complain to – and even if we did, we wouldn’t, because it was the only job we could get.”

With no money for a car or public transport, Istvan walked to work every day, three miles each way.

“It rained so much, so I would come into work soaking wet, and then I’d have to work on the line in the freezing cold.”

“I was all alone. At work, you weren’t allowed to speak to anybody. If you were caught talking you could be sacked, so I didn’t have any friends. It was just work, home, work, home. Even though it was more than what I earned in Romania, my wages were still low and the cost of living was higher.

Things changed for the better once Istvan’s boyfriend arrived, and later his cousin Dave.

Having heard first-hand from Istvan what life was like working at the poultry factory, Dave was under no illusions.

Dave was no stranger to hard work – he started working in construction when he was 14, not knowing then that this was illegal child labour. He later worked at a car assembly plant.

At a loose end after working for some years in Portugal, he jumped at the chance to join his cousin Istvan, with whom he was raised as a brother.

He began work at the factory packing chicken breasts, but struggling to keep up, he asked management if he could be moved elsewhere. He landed in ‘manual debone’ – considered the hardest job in the plant.

“We have to process around 25 chickens per minute, and it’s all done by hand,” Dave explained.  Like Istvan, Dave was shocked by the culture of bullying at the factory. “If your supervisor spoke, you shut your mouth.”

Dave’s first encounter with Unite was with organiser Rachel Boothroyd who said Unite was hoping to start a campaign to improve toilet facilities. She needed signatures from workers. Dave asked her how she was getting on.

“Not very well, she told me. People won’t stop to speak with me,” Dave said. “I told her – give me that paper and ten minutes later I came back with 50 signatures. She was shocked.”

Rachel and another organiser Nick asked Dave out for a coffee and explained that for any of their campaigns to be effective, they needed more members.

“They told me, you can change everything in this factory – they really believed in me and that’s what lit a fire in me.”

At the time, Unite hardly had a presence at the site, but once Dave got hold of membership forms, he was like a force of nature. Within three days, he recruited 20 members. Within 18 months, he, Istvan and a handful of new reps – all migrant workers – would go on to recruit more than 800 members.

With their newfound collective strength, and with Dave and Istvan at the helm as convenor and deputy convenor, members at 2 Sisters have gone on to win significant pay rises, as well as improvements to their terms and conditions.

Most importantly, they’ve fundamentally changed the culture at the site.

“Our relationship with management is totally different now – we really work together for the benefit of all,” Dave explained. “We have family fun days, Christmas raffles. Management now doesn’t say no to anything we ask for.”

By Hajera Blagg

Pic by Mark Harvey