Bakers’ Struggle Highlights Plight of Agency Workers

Park Cakes “baked with love” on £6.08 an hour

On Saturday, seventy workers employed by northwest cake manufacturers Park met to discuss strike action later this month. Bakers are in dispute over the pay and conditions of temporary workers, with staff saying changes could cost them £4,000 per year. But the dispute has wider implications – including the unions’ championing of the new Agency Workers Regulations (AWR), which far from their claims, are being used to attack the living standards of temporary workers.

The legislation was passed during the last Parliament, despite opposition from the Conservative Party. However, behind the apparently progressive talk about granting equal pay and conditions to temporary workers, lie two major loopholes, which are now being exploited by businesses across the country.

The first problem with the AWR is that it only applies once a temp has completed twelve weeks of continuous work with the same company. Any firm wishing to circumvent this only has to replace a temp after eleven weeks, leading to even greater precarity for temps. Indeed the Telegraph cites research by the Association of Recruitment Consultancies, claiming that 60% of employers intend to do just that.

Secondly, companies which employ a lot of temps can always – as Park Cakes have done – simply reduce the pay and conditions of permanent workers, making ‘equality’ for temps much less desirable. New recruits will now be paid just £6.08 per hour – the exact level of the minimum wage. They will be on zero hour contracts, meaning hours can be dropped at a moment’s notice, and will get no shift payments or overtime. Sick pay, pension and redundancy rights will be reduced or eliminated.

This comes after 2010, when Park Cakes boss Anne Allen received a 14% raise, after a company turnover of £115 million. The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) negotiated a wage freeze for the workers.

Under the fresh company plans, temps will have equality in misery, and a new, lower benchmark will be set for those who have been at the company for some time. They are certain to face pay cuts next year unless they can win here and now.

However, BFAWU have been predictably reluctant to translate populist speechifying into action. At Saturday’s meeting, union president Ian Hodson fumed that: “A clear message has been sent to the company, they are wrong, wrong, wrong and you are right, right, right. Right to take action, right to stand up and right to fight.” But Hodson is desperate to cut a sell-out deal with Park, which is evidenced by the fact it’s taken him two weeks since the initial ballot to announce strike dates, despite a 68 to 32 per cent majority.

Four strike dates have now been scheduled for the 11th, 14th, 22nd and 30th of November, during which workers of course lose four days of pay. Hodson may be calculating that they would be desperate to concede anything after that devastating loss of earnings. As ever, if the workers are to win this struggle, they must take the dispute into their own hands. In the case of Park Cakes, they must reach out to the non-unionised temps, and to the working class of Bolton, Wigan and wider areas, and make demands with an ‘or else…’ attached.