‘I’m just very stubborn’
Convenor David Imre and his Unite team have recruited 600 new members in 18 months – and have secured massive pay rises for staff
Food processing is one of the most difficult jobs out there.
The hours are long, the pay is meagre and the work itself is not for the feint hearted. It comes as no surprise then that staff turnover is exceptionally high in meat and poultry factories.
“Even though we’ve had a recognition agreement for many years, we’ve struggled with the membership because it’s such a transient workforce,” said Unite regional officer Brian Troake, of the 2Sisters Sandycroft poultry processing factory in Deeside, Wales.
“People will start work at 8 am as a new employee and they’ll quit by 8.30. The work is enormously physically demanding and the wages and treatment of the workers is so poor. It’s not the sort of place people hand their notices in – they just don’t come back.
” Compounding the problem for union organsing in the sector is not just one language barrier but dozens.
“At the 2Sisters Sandycroft site, there are 32 different nationalities with almost as many different languages spoken,” Brian told uniteEXTRA.
Organising predominantly migrant workplaces has been one of the biggest challenges UK trade unions have faced in modern times. But in the last year, Unite members at the 2Sisters Sandycroft factory have shown that nothing is impossible.
Thanks to the hard work of Unite reps, many of them migrant workers themselves, the 2Sisters Sandycroft site – the largest factory owned by one of the biggest poultry companies in the country – has seen Unite membership skyrocket in the last year and a half. And now, with their newfound strength, they’ve just secured an unprecedented pay deal unheard of the sector.
Increasing Unite membership by more than 600 workers in a mere 18 months was no accident, Brian explained. “In 2019, we felt we needed to redouble our efforts on the site,” he said. “We did a mapping exercise and went about targeting different communities by identifying leaders in those communities.
” And one such leader, Unite 2Sisters Sandycroft site convenor David Imre, “shone like a star from the outset”, Brian said.
“The truth is I’m just very stubborn,” David told uniteEXTRA, laughing. “When members come to me with problems I go up to the HR office and I don’t leave until the problem is fixed. I’m like glue – I stick around and if you don’t fix my problem I won’t leave.
” Whether out of pure stubbornness or an innate leadership ability – or a mix of both – David’s success is undeniable. Originally from Romania, David moved to the UK in 2016 and joined Unite less than two years ago.
Since then, he’s gone from member to rep to convenor, and he’s singlehandedly recruited hundreds of members. In what David called his ‘proudest moment’, he recruited 89 members in a single day.
“You come from a foreign country, you can’t speak the language, you’re often badly treated at work and in the wider community. These people have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. We need to help them”
David Imre, Unite convenor, 2Sisters, Sandycroft
So what’s the secret to his success? “You need to listen to people,” David explained. “And sometimes that may involve listening to them about their personal lives outside of the workplace. That’s how you build trust. People need to know that you really care. People come to you when they know that you will do whatever it takes to help them."
David also attributes his success to the fact that he speaks an astounding five languages – Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Portuguese and English. And at a site where 80 per cent of the workforce are migrant workers, such language skills are indispensable.
“Especially when people are angry, scared or emotional, it’s hard for them to communicate in a second language,” David noted. “We need to be able to talk to members in their native language.
” With numbers comes power – and members at 2Sisters Sandycroft have only just begun to realise how much power they can wield when they stand together.
Last year, management dug its heels in when the workforce demanded better Covid health and safety measures. But thanks to the increased membership and the insistence of David and his team of reps, bosses relented.
And now, the members have secured an unprecedented pay deal, where the lowest paid workers – accounting for 40 per cent of the workforce – will see their pay increase by a whopping 6.4 per cent. This takes their pay above the real Living Wage for the first time in the site’s history.
Those working in ‘manual debone’, about a fifth of the workforce, will see their pay skyrocket by over 10 per cent, while those in the ‘kill and hang’ area will see a pay increase of 7.7 per cent. The deal also secures an additional day’s holiday for everyone.
“Because we’re so strong now with hundreds more members, it’s not been so much of a pay claim this year – it’s more of a pay demand,” Brian explained. “It’s been really empowering and inspiring for people, myself included. It’s not often you go into pay talks with such a strong negotiating position.
” Brian says he is eager to replicate this stunning success at other food processing sites across the UK – and David is hopeful it will happen, as long as migrant workers’ voices are truly heard.
“Finding migrant reps should be at the forefront of our efforts,” he said, adding that migrant reps are also essential because they truly understand the unique migrant worker experience. Think about it – you come from a foreign country, you can’t speak the language, you’re often badly treated at work and in the wider community. These people have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. We need to help them.
” Above all, David urged all food production workers to join a union. “The more of us that we are, the more power we have to make big changes in our workplaces,” David said. “If there’s a problem, we can fix it. We’ve proved that it works.”
By Hajera Blagg