Bakkavor is one of the businesses which remain open while the UK is under lockdown. In the two days following the government announcement, on the 23rd of March, of major restrictions to people's movement outside their homes, Bakkavor shares nearly doubled in value from 66.5p a share to 107.4p a share. In the words of the Times newspaper, investors expect "that demand for supermarket ready meals would take off during the lockdown".But business as usual and an increased demand for ready meals is a problem for the workers on the production line. Sources in London and in other Bakkavor sites told VICE that despite government advice that people should stay at least two metres away to avoid spreading the virus, workers continue to work side-by-side on production lines.
"What is unfolding before our eyes is national scandal."
Bakkavor boasts that its factories are operational 24 hours a day, 364 days a year, and that "given the short shelf life of products", orders are received "on-the-day, for-the-day".While having our changing whims as consumers satisfied by Bakkavor's promise to deliver based on demand, this translates to huge amounts of stress to those in the factory, says Priya, who spent three years working at Bakkavor's London factories and over the last year represented many of her colleagues as a union rep in grievance proceedings. She finally left the company in March of 2020."The pressure of work is so intense… people feel very overworked," she said. "Managers will shout at women on the production line if they have done something wrong or if they are not going fast enough."Mayur Mahesh Kharwa worked in several different production lines between July and November of 2019, but mainly in what was called the "cookhouse", cooking foods and sauces in large vats. He says he had a similar experience to Priya's.In the cookhouse, besides facing the pressure of managers, corners were regularly cut, machines would break down and workers were refused safety equipment, Mayur says.Some sauces were cooked in wine, but workers were never given masks to protect themselves from the fumes. "We feel dizzy because the wine is so strong," Mayur says.
"Managers will shout at women on the production line if they have done something wrong or if they are not going fast enough."
Current and former employees also say that the rush to get everything done means a lot of corners are cut, even when it comes to health and safety. Protective guarding is not always fitted properly onto machines, and this has led to workers sustaining major injuries.Over the last ten years, Bakkavor has been prosecuted seven times by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the government regulator for matters related to workplace safety. The most recent prosecutions were for two separate deaths in factories in Bo'ness, Scotland, and Wigan. Over the years, people have also suffered amputated fingers, broken limbs and a crushed hand, many times as a result of guards not being properly placed on machines.
"They say, 'Go! Work! Work! Work!’ They don’t care if people are able or not, if people are sick or not. They just care to reach the target."