During the height of the pandemic, workers at Allied Bakeries in Liverpool were hard at work. The workers, members of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), were on the verge of strike action in a pay dispute but abandoned their strike to assist with the national effort. Classed as essential workers, they strived to support the most vulnerable, donating over 25,000 packets of pancakes to food banks, hospitals, and nursing homes across the city. Teams at the bakery also delivered much-needed supplies to local hospitals.
‘We fed the nation during the pandemic. Now, we’re struggling to feed ourselves.’ Those are the words of John Owens, a union rep and worker at Allied Bakeries for over 25 years. He’s on the picket line outside the bakery, demanding a decent pay rise. A 48-hour strike began on Tuesday and, this weekend, workers are back on the picket line for a second one. The most recent offer by the company is ten percent over two years. Given sky-rocketing inflation, workers feel this offer is inadequate for the financial challenges they face.
After nearly 12 months of pay negotiations, amid the worst squeeze on living standards since the 1950s, workers like John felt they had no choice but to strike. ‘A lot of my colleagues are working overtime to make ends meet. We just have a flat base rate of pay whereas those in the engineering department get extra money on top. We’re simply asking to be treated fairly,’ says John.
Hard Work, Low Pay
Dan has worked at Allied Bakeries for the last ten years and has never felt angrier than he is today. ‘I’ve worked Boxing Day night shifts, Saturdays, Sundays, Bank Holidays and even New Year’s Day, when the whole country apart from emergency services is off work. It doesn’t matter what day I work; I get 11.47 an hour. We don’t get bank holidays off, unless if falls that way on the shift system.’
Workers here are on a shift system; they work two days and two nights, then get four days off. It means unsociable hours are the rule, not the exception – much to the detriment of family life. ‘The minimum wage has increased over the years but our pay hasn’t significantly increased. I’ve been here ten years and I’m earning just one pound and five pence an hour more than the minimum wage.’
BFAWU recently released a report about the shocking situation those in the food industry find themselves in. It found that nearly one in five workers in the industry are forced to rely on foodbanks – a ten percent increase in just three years. It’s a damning indictment of the in-work poverty in the sector, where workers are increasingly unable to afford the food that they themselves produce.
‘All we have experienced in recent years is cuts,’ says one worker at the site. ‘Cuts to our training rates, compassionate leave slashed, bereavement leave cut. There has been no investment in us, and we’ve had enough.’ This testimony comes from a worker in a company that boasts about increased profits, £17 billion in revenue, and rewards for its shareholders.
The company has a high staff turnover and is becoming increasingly reliant on agency workers. ‘They’re struggling to get people in so they’re relying on agency workers who can’t keep up with the pace of the work,’ explains John. ‘It means extra pressure on us.’ ‘I think the company relies on the fact that we’ve been here so long,’ Dan says, ‘and are used to the intensity of the work.’
Conditions at the bakery aren’t great, either, workers say. ‘In the summer, the heat in the factories is terrible,’ explains John. ‘We’ve been requesting a health and safety review for months and months.’
Dan says his spirit has been uplifted by the solidarity on the picket line this weekend where support from the public has been consistent.
‘We had an ambulance go past and show support. They know where we’re coming from because they’ve been there themselves. People have donated food and water. There was a Kingsmill Wagon approaching the bakery. He didn’t go in and instead gave us a big box of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.’
John Owens remains optimistic about finding a resolution. Eight years ago, workers like him voted for strike action after management attempted to take away breaks from workers. In the end, the mere threat of strike action was enough to get the employer to reverse course. ‘I’ll probably retire in five years but I don’t want to see my good friends and colleagues struggling when I’m gone.’
At time of writing, there have been no new negotiations over pay following two instances of 48-hour strike action. If the employer doesn’t get round the table, workers say they plan to go further – at Allied Bakeries, they want more than crumbs and are determined to fight for it.