Once upon a time the Irish Sugar Company was a source of national pride – now its successor company makes its fortune in Britain by filling its sandwiches by exploiting workers on low wages. Set up after Independence in 1926 with the aim of making Ireland self sufficient in sugar the company had four factories and created employment for over 25,000 at its height including food processors and on Irish Railways who provided freight trains for the Beet harvest season. Like so many protected semi-State bodies it built itself a prestigious office in Earlsfort Terrace Dublin and it even included an art-house Cinema (!!) which I used to frequent. It and its associated food businesses were privatised the Irish Government in 1991 and its changed its name to Greencore. In 2006 sugar production ended in Ireland rendered uneconomical by the EU’s abolition of subsidies and market controls.
Now Greencore has grown to become Britain’s biggest sandwich maker, producing 430 million sarnies a year for customers including Asda and Waitrose. The company says its business has “people at the core”. It acquired the Northampton site when it bought Uniq, formerly Unigate, in 2011. The factory dated back to 1974, opened as the headquarters of Henry Telfer, then the UK’s largest maker of meat products, including Wimpy burgers. The company makes almost all its money in Britain and moved its share listing from Dublin to London in 2012.
The UK’S biggest sandwich firm that claimed it can’t find enough Brits to fill jobs has been accused of refusing staff a meagre 6p an hour pay rise. Greencore – slammed for recruiting in Hungary for 300 staff for a new factory – could face industrial action in a battle over a one per cent award to more than 100 workers on just £6.50 an hour. Union bosses said morale was now rock bottom at the firm that supplies pre-packed sandwiches to supermarkets including Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda. Insiders claim staff have to cope with extreme temperatures, “shoddy treatment” by management and are bawled out by supervisors if they fail to make enough sandwiches.
Greencore bosses last week provoked fury by flying to Budapest to hire staff for a new sandwich factory in Northampton. It said the jobs offered were “not always the kind of work people have wanted to do”. There are 7,800 jobless in the town. A whistleblower at Greencore’s Hull factory which makes cakes and desserts accused the firm of taking advantage of both British and foreign agency workers. He told the Sunday Mirror: “Around half of our workers are Eastern European. But it doesn’t matter where any of us are from because none of us are treated properly.
“People are shouted at for not working fast enough and agency workers are too scared to refuse overtime in case they are binned. We’re disciplined over the smallest of things, from time off to talking too much.” Others among the 700 workers at Hull, which also produces three million Christmas cakes a year, described the atmosphere in the factory as “horrendous”.
Staff say they often have to work in extreme temperatures, either hand-decorating cakes in the baking area where huge ovens operate or doing desserts in the chilled area, where it can be as cold as five degrees. They claim staff are expected to work 12-hour shifts at weekends. One employee told us: “You can be shifted from one zone to another in the same shift. The chilled area is freezing and lots of us put on thermals which aren’t much fun when you’re moved to the mixing area where it’s boiling. It’s really noisy and people have to wear ear protectors. All the while supervisors are stood near making sure you’re working fast enough.”
Insiders say resentment has reached boiling point over pay. Workers also accused Greencore of betraying them after they agreed to suspend premium pay rates in 2010 to help the firm through the recession. Once the 12 months were up Greencore refused to give them back their original terms. Union chiefs at Unite had to go to a tribunal to win back £1.2million in lost pay for workers. Now the firm could face industrial action as the Hull depot fights for a one per cent rise for those on just £6.50 an hour.
One Unite source said: “This is a company which made an operating profit of £76.5million last year, yet refuses to give its minimum wages staff a few pence more an hour. It says nobody wants to take on these jobs, but it’s not true. People don’t want to work for peanuts. That’s probably why bosses are going to Hungary to take on staff who are used to low money.” The Unite source said the union requested a one per cent increase for 125 workers on the minimum wage during negotiations over a proposed two per cent rise for regular workers.
He said: “Our annual pay rise was meant to be agreed last month. But the company wasn’t keen on one per cent rise for minimum wage staff. They promised they would respond in a few days in October. If they don’t sort the pay out they will be heading for a strike.” Another insider claimed agency staff were forced to line up with only a lucky few were chosen to work the day. He said: “Shifts start at 6am and we see both British and foreign agency workers coming in at 5.40 for work. Those not chosen sit in the canteen before heading home at about quarter past. The agency staff who are picked end up doing three or four hours a day. It’s like a lottery.”
Greencore’s boss Patrick Coveney was paid £1.3million last year, including a £418,000 bonus. What a shameful transition for a once proud Irish company to now represent the worst employment practices in the low wage Britain being constructed by the Conservatives.