Archive article from The Socialist Issue 474
Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/2007/474/np46.htm
Job losses fear on turkey farms
FOR THE last 57 years Bernard Matthews' empire has mushroomed, but confirmation of the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu in his turkeys could change all that. He began in 1950 with 20 turkey eggs and now has businesses all over the world with total profits of more than £26 million, employing 7,500 staff.
Teresa MacKay Chair, Rural, Agriculture & Allied Workers, TGWU
The company produces 80% of all cooked meats in the UK as well as 30% of whole turkeys that are sold at Christmas. Last year, publicity for Bernard Matthews included the conviction of two turkey catchers for cruelty and Jamie Oliver's condemnation of Turkey Twizzlers, calling them 'cheap processed junk food.'
In 1991, 8,000 birds were slaughtered when the same H5N1 virus was discovered on a Bernard Matthews farm in Norfolk. This time 160,000 birds have been slaughtered at Holton - the first major cull in the UK, after 2,500 birds died of the H5N1 virus strain.
There are two processing plants in the area; one at Holton in Suffolk and the other at Great Witchingham in Norfolk.
Around 1,000 workers are employed at each plant, the majority of whom are now Portuguese, employed directly from Portugal. This shift in employment has gradually taken place over the past five years.
The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) has produced material in Portuguese so that the workers are aware of the health and safety issues.
The union has made it clear that if the workers are out of pocket as a result of avian flu then representations will be made to the government for compensation. Flu jabs were offered to all workers and are being monitored. However, there is a real fear that the flu outbreak will lead to serious job losses in this rural area.
One of the lay officials commented on the fact that when she was shopping in Asda no one was buying poultry. If this is the case it won't be long before the supermarkets cancel orders, which will have serious repercussions at both plants.
The publicity surrounding the conditions of these birds won't help either. They may be sanitised conditions but no one could describe 160,000 turkeys under the same roof with no access to daylight as good.
These conditions and the globalisation of the food industry make outbreaks like the present one inevitable.
Avian influenza has highlighted the link between public health, food safety, trade union rights and health and safety at the workplace.
Originally, nationally and internationally there was no recognition by governments of the major implications for workers in the poultry industry who are in the front line of exposure to the virus.
Through pressure from the TGWU the government had to recognise the need to involve the union in discussions on the issue.
Now the union must ensure that workers are justly compensated when farms are temporarily or permanently closed as a result of this flu.