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Home >> out of the menu >> Projects for engaging duty-bearers >> Great Britain - Inquiry into recruitment and employment in the meat (...)

Great Britain - Inquiry into recruitment and employment in the meat processing and poultry processing sector project

August 7th 2014


The food and drink manufacturing industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK with the meat and poultry sector being a significant part of this. Overall, migrant workers make up 70% of agency staff in processing firms and over one third of their employees.

The EHRC received evidence that agency workers were treated differently to directly employed workers in terms of pay and conditions and their treatment at work.

In 2008 the EHRC used its powers under s.16 of the Equality Act to conduct a formal inquiry. The inquiry gave the EHRC the opportunity to examine how people working in this industry are recruited, and how they are treated once they are at work. Through questionnaires, interviews and consultation with individuals and organisations the EHRC was able to gather broad and authoritative evidence that has formed the base of the findings report.

The inquiry report, published in March 2010, revealed evidence of the widespread mistreatment and exploitation of migrant and agency workers. Significant numbers of workers reported physical and verbal abuse and a lack of proper health and safety protection, with the treatment of pregnant workers a particular concern. EHRC found that many workers had little knowledge of their rights and feared raising concerns would lead to dismissal. While migrant workers were most affected, British agency workers also faced similar mistreatment.

The inquiry uncovered frequent breaches of the law and licensing standards in meat processing factories - some of which supply the UK’s biggest supermarkets - and the agencies that supply workers to them. It also highlighted conditions which flout minimum ethical trading standards and basic human rights.

One of the Inquiry recommendations was that EHRC should review the progress made by the sector in 12 months time. In November 2012 EHRC launched the findings of our review "Meat and poultry processing inquiry review" which is a report of the findings and recommendations.

Duty bearers targeted, and their specific obligations (if any)

The duty bearers targeted were:

  • SME’s (small and medium sized enterprises);
  • Large employers

Main objective of the project

The main objective of the project was to encourage and support change in the sector, including supermarkets, labour providers, processing firms, government, regulators and unions, specifically to improve the working conditions for migrant and agency workers.


The tools chosen were "Legal (enforcement)", "Advice and guidance" and "Engagement and provision of practical support". The EHRC initially used its powers under s.16 of the Equality Act (2006) to conduct a formal inquiry and published the Inquiry report in March 2010 which revealed evidence of widespread mistreatment and exploitation of migrant and agency workers in the sector. It also prioritised engagement with key stakeholders throughout the inquiry in order to fully understand the sector context and make practical, workable recommendations. It reviewed the progress the sector has made 12 months after the report and reviewed the findings in November 2012.

Key achievements

Through the EHRC’s work with the industry since the launch of the Inquiry and the information, the Commission has reviewed there is clear evidence there have been a number of successful developments in the industry.

  • Following the launch of the inquiry, the EHRC set up and facilitated a Taskforce of the main stakeholders in the industry to encourage and support the sector to make changes voluntarily. Industry bodies and all of the major supermarkets (Asda, Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Co-operative Food, Waitrose and M&S) have developed and adopted a set of management practices and Key Performance Indicators focused on areas of concern raised by the Inquiry. These have been rolled out by supermarkets across their meat and poultry supply chain with a view to using them across all of their food processing suppliers in the future. These are aimed at ensuring improved working practices across the sector.
  • The EHRC has worked with the Association of Labour Providers (ALP), a task force member, the Institute of Community Cohesion, and Coventry University to draw up a training programme for firms specifically to address issues raised by the inquiry. The Co-operative supermarket is piloting this training with plans to roll it out across its supplier base.
  • The ALP has also produced two toolkits in order to address problems highlighted in the Inquiry report, in collaboration with the Co-op supermarket, which have been distributed to labour providers and producers: “Identifying Migrant Worker Maltreatment” and “Communicating with a multi-language workforce”
  • The inquiry recommended improvements in supermarket auditing systems. As a result of engagement with the EHRC, Asda, the second largest UK supermarket and task force member, is auditing all of its meat suppliers, focusing on issues raised in the Inquiry report and putting in corrective action plans, with a follow-up re-audit in 6 months’ time. Thus far, 27 suppliers have uncovered 400 issues of concern, a very significant increase on the number of issues picked up by audits before the inquiry reported. Further, over 1,000 staff have been moved from temporary to permanent status.
  • The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the body responsible for the regulation of workplace health, safety and welfare, has published new guidance for its inspectors based on the inquiry findings. It is intended as a source of intelligence for operational planning and guides inspectors to concentrate on the range of health and safety issues highlighted in the EHRC Inquiry report.

In November 2012 EHRC launched the findings of the review "Meat and poultry processing inquiry review" which is a report of the findings and recommendations.

The review highlights clear signs of progress, which EHRC is pleased with, particularly in light of the difficult economic environment. There have been significant improvements made in some areas: pregnant workers are treated significantly better, workers are no longer segregated by nationality or suffer physical abuse; British workers interviewed no longer experienced difficulties registering with agencies due to their nationality.

There are still some challenges in some organisations such as management coercion and threatening behaviour. Job insecurity is still too common for agency workers, despite improved legal protection. Although there are clear signs of progress, further action is still needed by processing firms and agencies to ensure that all workers are treated fairly and with respect.

The EHRC’s recommendations from the review of the Inquiry intend to
reduce the causes of vulnerability for all workers, hold organisations to account in meeting equality and human rights standards, promote equality, human rights and good relations.

The recommendations are:

  • Discrimination and coercion - work agencies and processing firms should provide training to recruitment consultants and managers
  • Audits - supermarkets look at additional methods of collecting confidential evidence from all workers at audits. This might include interviewing individuals away from production lines and without the presence of managers,
  • Supermarkets requiring higher standards from their suppliers - they should work more closely with suppliers to develop sustainable approaches to ordering which supports a more balanced and manageable work flow
  • Service Level Agreements with labour providers - with agencies which specify how agency workers should be treated.
  • Training - processing firms should provide supervisors and managers, particularly first line managers with appropriate training to enable them to operate in a way that promotes equality and cohesion and respects the dignity of workers.
  • Helping workers to raise issues of concern - provide workers with a confidential and well-publicised process for raising issues of concern in a language they understand
  • Promoting integration and more effective working and reducing vulnerability through English language provision - workers are more likely to attend English language lessons when they are provided at the factory and are either subsidised or free.
  • Recruitment - agencies adopt a comprehensive equal opportunities policy.

The findings in the report should enable the sector to learn from each other, be able to share good practice to improve the working conditions of agency and migrant workers.