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Greencore factory: timeline of a coronavirus outbreak shows staff must be listened to

Outside of Greencore's Northampton factory.
Nearly 300 workers at Northampton’s Greencore factory tested positive for coronavirus. Google Street View

The coronavirus outbreak at the Greencore factory was so bad that the UK government recently published new health and safety legislation for England in direct response to it. The sandwich factory based in Northampton had nearly 300 workers test positive for COVID-19 in mid-August.

As researchers of employment and management who’ve been following this case, we suggest this situation was by no means destined to unfold as it did. Indeed, we believe it could have been prevented had the voice of workers, articulated through their union, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), been listened to and acted upon by the management in the lead-up to the outbreak.

A timeline of the outbreak at Greencore reveals some of the missed opportunities to properly listen to staff concerns – something our research shows has a big impact on workplace health and safety. This case also presents lessons for the economic recovery ahead for how to return to workplaces safely and prevent mass outbreaks.

  • March 31: BFAWU starts to campaign for full pay for furloughed workers after the company announced it will not top up pay beyond the 80% provided by the government. According to a BFAWU official, this resulted in 60% of Greencore workers receiving less than minimum wage during the lockdown, which made it harder for them to comply with subsequent requirements for self-isolation as staff were compelled to continue working to make ends meet.

  • April: In a series of meetings, BFAWU raises concerns about staff access to risk assessments, testing, distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), temperature checks and the impact of distancing on the pace of work.

  • May 7: BFAWU raises concerns about the effectiveness of the company’s contact-tracing process, the lack of a written COVID-19 procedure and the lack of company sick pay for most workers during self-isolation because of their “flexi-contracts”.

  • July 27: Four Greencore workers test positive, followed by another four two days later. By August 4 there are 24 cases.

  • August 10-12: Greencore arranges for private company Randox to test 1,100 workers, which together with NHS testing identifies 287 cases of COVID-19. Those who test positive and their households are told to self-isolate but the factory remains open.

  • August 18: BFAWU submits a formal grievance over the lack of sick pay. While it seems that most managers receive company sick pay, many shop floor workers had to rely on statutory sick pay of £95.85 a week.

  • August 21: It emerges that there are links between Greencore cases and cases at other nearby factories. Greencore says it has seen no evidence of this. Meanwhile, employment agencies are asked to stop sending workers to multiple factories to prevent the spread of the virus.

  • August 21: Following pressure from BFAWU, Greencore announces an immediate cease to production at its Northampton site to allow staff to self-isolate for 14 days. It later emerges that some workers in security and dispatch continued working to “monitor and maintain the site” under official agreement. This is despite claims they mixed with workers in other departments.

  • August 28: The government publishes new regulations requiring anybody who worked at Greencore between August 7 and August 21, and other members of their household, to self-isolate until September 5, under threat of a £100 fine, unless they meet criteria for an exemption.

  • September 1: BFAWU submits a collective grievance stating that some health and safety procedures are not being followed and that the full results from a second round of COVID-19 testing, which started on 19 August, have still not been shared.

Factory worker takes temperature of colleague and holds out hand sanitiser.
Health and safety has taken on new meaning since coronavirus. Shutterstock.com

Protecting staff and the public

Since March, workers at Greencore challenged the adequacy of COVID-19 protections through the BFAWU union. Although they were not able to prevent a serious outbreak of COVID-19, they won improvements, setting up a hardship fund to provide immediate support, and advising on the importance of contact tracing beyond the household. To the extent that Greencore listened to them, this helped protect workers and the wider public.

Greencore says:

We have worked closely with the Department of Health & Social Care, Public Health England and other government bodies, who have been hugely supportive of our response. If there was any sense that we weren’t implementing the necessary protections then they would of course not allow us to continue to operate. All of our sites have wide-ranging social-distancing measures, stringent hygiene procedures and regular temperature checking in place.

We have also engaged tirelessly with the BFAWU to answer their questions and concerns throughout this process and indeed have valued their input. We have a number of union representatives who are now supplementing our regular safety teams and supervisors to ensure that all of extensive measures that we have in place are being adhered to.

However, the fact that workers felt the need to resort repeatedly to formal grievances suggests the company could have acted more quickly and the union suggests that some issues are still not resolved.

‘On mute’

When the gradual lifting of the UK lockdown was announced in early May, the prime minister encouraged people who had been unable to work remotely to begin talking to their employers about the practicalities of a safe return to the workplace. Given the growing amount of research on the benefits of employees being able to voice their concerns for a company’s health and safety, the wider importance of these conversations and managing the return to work is vital to recognise.

Greencore workers had a voice through their union representatives. But for many others elsewhere, airing concerns can be difficult, or even impossible, if managers do not make the space for it.

People in low-paid manual work are up to four times more likely to die from the virus than professionals. Many of these workers were “on mute” before the pandemic and continue to lack a voice at work.

The consequences have been devastating for some, with low voice contributing to high mortality within the UK health and social care sector and curtailing the influence of those from black and ethnic minority groups who are up to 50% more likely to die from the virus than white counterparts.

The Greencore case highlights the importance of organised workers’ voices in this crisis. It also suggests that without sufficient economic security, crucially including full sick pay for all workers who need to self-isolate, other measures to encourage or enforce self-isolation are unlikely to be effective.

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