Poor Pay, No Rights: UK’s New Workforce

Danny Wilde collected his last pay cheque from the Tulip pork factory in Norfolk on Friday before joining the dole queue.

His wife, Melissa, was made redundant from her job at the same Thetford plant earlier this month. They both joined the meat processing lines from school and have put in 20 years at the company between them, taking turns on early and late shifts so that they could look after their two children.

There have been jobs cuts here before: in 2003 more than 170 full-time employees were made redundant and replaced immediately with agency staff, most of them migrants on poorer terms – lower rates of pay, mostly just the minimum wage, less overtime money, less holiday, more antisocial shift patterns, uncertain hours. The full-time employees had no pay rise for three years and watched as their incomes were eroded by inflation.

Now the rest of the work has gone, most of it relocated to another subsidiary of the transnational Danish Crown group in Cornwall. The Wildes feel badly let down after years of loyal work. As Melissa puts it: “That’s business today, isn’t it. It doesn’t care.”

Tulip has been Thetford’s largest employer since Thermos closed its factory on the same industrial estate five years ago and shifted to China where the labour is cheaper. Up to 700 people who have worked at Tulip regularly will now have to look for jobs elsewhere.

Deborah French who worked in the slicing hall for 19 years packing bacon for Tesco and M&S is now joining her two sisters who were made redundant in that last round. One of them has not worked since. What galled her was being asked to train the agency workers who had replaced them. “This affects so many people’s lives, so many husbands and wives and cousins and children worked in the company. It’s the economy round here.”

These are the kind of workers at the heart of a campaign being fought by unions determined to make equal rights for agency workers one of the issues of this week’s Labour party conference. They will attack the government for failing to support a measure they say is vital to protect local and migrant workers and to stop a growing racial backlash.

The government has blocked a new EU directive to give agency workers the same rights and although Gordon Brown promised this month to work towards a deal, he did not commit to detail.

The mood on the ground in Thetford chimes with what many Labour MPs are now reporting from their constituencies – that the anger is with the use of agency staff rather than the agency staff themselves, or where they come from.

Danny thinks he lost his job because there are people from other countries willing to take less pay. “The companies are just bringing in cheap labour from abroad. Migrants want a better life and good luck to them, but it’s bringing down our way of life. If you are an unskilled English person like me you are not going to get the jobs when unskilled foreigners are cheaper.”

Danny used to vote Labour but now he’s undecided. “I’m not happy with the way things are going in this country.”

Several Polish workers directly employed at the company have in fact lost their jobs too.

Tulip says the factory is too old to be profitable and even with significant investment it “would not be able to deliver the efficiencies required to make it profitable”, it said in a statement. It maintains that labour costs were not its reason for relocating, but that the nature of employment itself has changed: 24/7 business with sudden peaks means that “wage structures and shift patterns have to be adapted”, a spokesman said.

He declined to comment on who would be employed at its Cornish site on what rates of pay but added: “Tulip works in a very competitive marketplace and consolidation is critical if Tulip is to establish itself as the most competitive producer.”

When the job losses were announced in March, Unite the union organised demonstrations. As the Guardian joined them a man cycled up to shout nationalist abuse, before disappearing into the neighbouring housing estate. Most of the workers interviewed echoed Danny’s feelings.

Cheryl Leeder, who was losing her job at 56 after 31 years’ service along with husband Denis who had been there 34 years, blamed pressure from Tulip’s supermarket customers to cut costs and the fact that workers in Cornwall would be cheaper.

Deborah Bode an employee for 15 years, agreed. “The agency rate is lower than ours, and even when agency workers get made up to permanent they are on different terms. You can smile a lot and get over the language barrier but it doesn’t foster good relations if they undercut you.”

In 2004 there was rioting outside the Portuguese-run Red Lion pub in Thetford’s main square. More than 200 local youths surrounded the pub after England’s football defeat by Portugal and hurled missiles at its windows while shouting racist abuse at about 40 Portuguese workers and their families barricaded inside. Ten young men were later jailed for the attack.

Thetford has a population of about 28,000. An estimated 25,000 Portuguese have settled in the surrounding area in the space of a few years and more recently Polish and Lithuanian workers have arrived; the town itself had absorbed about 10,000 migrants.

Its Labour mayor, Thelma Paines, who joined the protests against the Tulip closure, said a lot of successful work had been done to bring the communities together after the riot.

But she was worried that a major round of job cuts now that include new Europeans who have only recently settled might provoke more tension. “People will inevitably start asking why their taxes are going to support jobless foreigners. There are development plans and regeneration plans, but in the short term, it’s bloody devastating.”