TWO young Polish women, Marta and Kaisia, yesterday told a TGWU-organised briefing in the House of Commons of their experiences as cheap labour agency contract workers in a North West food factory.
Marta said: ‘We came to England after being made promises by an agency.
‘We experienced overcrowded accommodation.
‘Most of the people who came here knew nothing about English law.
‘We were sleeping on the floor for two months before they brought a mattress and bed.’
Kaisia added: ‘Payslips were printed on computers and the sum was not exactly as expected.
‘We were forced to work overtime. We were working 80 hours a week. We were paid £3 an hour for working 80 hours.
‘We worked 15 hours a day sometimes, starting at 7am and sometimes working until midnight and going home worn out.’
Marta continued: ‘The most frightening thing was when the chief told us he wanted to know who was responsible for organising a union or we would face the sack.’
The briefing was to rally opposition to the government’s intention that the food processing and packaging industry be exempted from the 2004 Gangmaster Act, and that inspections are carried out only when deemed necessary.
‘If we don’t have a fully inclusive Gangmasters Bill, there will be more Morecambe Bays,’ author of last year’s Gangmasters Act, Labour MP Jim Sheridan warned the briefing.
Sheridan added: ‘We thought we had a done deal. I’m disappointed that a Labour government has to reconsult on the Act.’
Present at the briefing organised by the TGWU, were representatives of the coalition of the retailers, food processors, packing companies, agencies, community groups and trade unions who are supporting the 2004 Act.
Mick Cashman, TGWU senior organiser for Northwest England, said: ‘I was deeply shocked by the treatment of migrant workers.’
He said one agency was employing mostly Polish workers at a meat packaging factory in Winsford, Cheshire.
Cashman said: ‘Workers felt intimidated if they came forward with complaints.
‘They were charged £57 a week to be housed in overcrowded accommodation, as many as fifteen living in a two-bedroom house, with not even proper bedding initially.
‘They were told they were not allowed to form a union as they were agency workers.
‘When they did form a union, they were told if they did not name the person responsible, the agency would start sacking workers in groups of five.
‘In one case the charge for transport to work was doubled from £12 to £24 overnight.
‘A group tried to resign and were summarily dismissed. They had to go to London to pick up wages owed.
‘When they got back to Winsford, they were evicted from their accommodation.’
Emyr Evans, TGWU Swansea and Llanelli regional organiser said: ‘Our experiences are every much the same as in the North West.’
In its submission to the government’s second consultation on the draft Gangmasters (Exclusions) Regulations 2005, the TGWU states: ‘If secondary food processing is excluded and the Act is limited to primary agriculture alone, then around 150,000 workers will immediately fall outside of the scope of the Act and be beyond the protection of the law.
‘The T&G has evidence that abuse of workers in food processing is commonplace.
‘The abuses include: bonded labour practices, illegal and systematic deduction from wages, non-payment of the minimum wage, poor or non-existent health and safety practice, excessive charges for accommodation and cleaning, sexual harassment, harassment including threat of the sack for joining a trade union and workers “tricked” into signing a contract for a certain rate of pay only to find they are earning a lesser sum than agreed.’