BFAWU: Strike action at Hovis (Premier Foods), Wigan

The issue of zero-hour contracts and the use of agency workers is one that is taking up a considerable amount of column space in both local and national newspapers at the moment. The Bakers’, Food and Allied Workers Union highlighted this exploitation back in 2011 during a dispute with a well known supplier of cake products.

The current dispute with Hovis is one which has the potential to shape all future employment. It's about the casualisation of the food industry and a race to the bottom. Unlike other disputes over workers pay and conditions, this is a fight for the right of future workers to be given a contract of employment on the same terms and conditions of those they will work alongside. It’s a fight to ensure that the local residents continue to have credible job opportunities and perhaps more importantly, that future generations  in the community have the same opportunities to gain secure, well paid employment.

Sometimes, trade unions are accused of self interest and are carelessly labeled as ‘job destroyers’. This fight is about protecting the ability to have a contract of employment between employer and employee, so that future employees can help the wider economy with their purchasing power and God willing, their disposable income. Agency workers and those employed on zero hour contracts struggle to get rented property due to the precariousness nature of their employment. They are also vulnerable to exploitation and in most cases, dependent on the state to top up, their already low incomes. It should never be the responsibility of the state to pick up the bill for employers who can afford to pay directors and managers wages and bonuses of lottery-sized proportions.

The workers at Hovis in Wigan like many across the country have seen their workmates dismissed and cheaper labour installed in their place, yet the company still ends up having to make more redundancies and still loses business. It's easy to cut jobs and replace them with cheap labour, but it would appear the problem is poor management of the company. The BFAWU has tried to reach several agreements with the company, that they simply won’t honour. We held joint discussions with ACAS and yet the company still failed to bring forward any credible proposals. In fact, they withdrew planned proposals due to ACAS’ involvement. We need to fight for the workers of tomorrow as well as the workers of today. It’s essential that those leaving school are presented with the opportunity to realise their aspirations of a decent life. It is vital that the food industry in Britain doesn’t fall into a void of low skills, low pay and vulnerable workers.  That road can only lead to disaster; one which the industry would never recover.

Unfortunately, the last time the BFAWU tackled zero hour contracts, we remained a lone voice. With honourable exceptions, the media, local politicians and the general public alike decided to remain impassive and apathetic. Since then, the use of zero-hour contracts has reached almost epidemic proportions and it has been estimated that over a million UK workers are now employed on them. Sadly, it was only a matter of time before other organisations decided to jump on this particularly unpleasant bandwagon. Staff at the Hovis (Premier Foods) bakery in Wigan had already reduced their hours and subsequently, their pay in a bid to reduce the need for redundancies. However, after long and protracted discussions with the Union, the company decided to proceed with job losses. However, once the redundancies had been made, the company decided to renege on long standing recognition agreements and make up the ensuing staff shortfall with agency labour, with many being utilised on an ‘as and when’ basis, in other words; zero-hour contracts.

Since then, we have attempted to resolve this situation with the company, but to no avail. Ultimately, the Union took the painful decision to ballot its members at the Wigan site in order to seek a mandate for industrial action. The result was overwhelmingly in favour of strike action against the company on the following dates:

6.00am on August 28th 2013 until 6.00am on September 4th 2013

6.00am on September 11th 2013 until 6.00am on September 18th 2013

6.00am on September 25th 2013 until 6.00am on October 2nd 2013

Further branch meetings will be held to extend the action unless the company comes to a satisfactory agreement with the Union on the withdrawal of agency labour from the site.

BFAWU members at Hovis, Wigan have not taken this decision lightly. They have no desire to lose pay. However, they see the current situation as unacceptable and are determined not to allow the company to set precedents, undermine current terms and conditions, create a two tier workforce and leave a poor legacy for subsequent generations of people who may be employed at Hovis in the future.

We urge the company to re-enter negotiations with the Union and find a way to resolve this dispute fairly, amicably and in a way that reflects the strength of feeling among the workforce.


Ian Hodson
National President
Bakers’, Food & Allied Workers Union
Stanborough House
Great North Rd.
Welwyn Garden City
Twitter: @ianbfawu