In July of 2018, Rajisha* – a quality auditor at a west London food factory – was carried away unconscious by ambulance staff, having suffered a panic attack in the middle of her shift. This was the first time it had happened to her, but not the first time an ambulance had been called to the factory. Rajisha says her panic attack was the result of acute stress that built up over years of relentless workplace bullying.
"I saw her a few times visibly crying at work... she said she had become suicidal," says Priya*, one of Rajisha's colleagues and a GMB union rep at the food preparation company Bakkavor. "She was clearly being victimised by [her manager], being shouted at in front of other people."
Bakkavor produces dips, ready meals and savoury snacks for the UK's biggest supermarkets, such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, M&S, Co-op and Waitrose. Rajisha worked at one of the company's factories at the Park Royal industrial estate in west London, alongside 2,400 people. While you might have never heard its name, if you've ever bought a supermarket own-brand chicken tikka masala, hummus or samosa, chances are it was made by Bakkavor.
The company says it employs a total of 17,000 people in 25 factories and three distribution centres in the UK, and produces nearly a third of all freshly prepared foods sold in supermarkets. Besides the products named above, this also includes salads, ready prepared fruit and desserts. It has recently expanded to China and the United States, and in 2018 reported a revenue of almost £1.9 billion.
Around a year before her panic attack, Rajisha had been made to take on the workload of three people, and her manager would often demand that she work through her breaks and past her contracted hours. She had previously taken time off for stress, but finally cracked when her manager pursued her across the shop floor, berating her for not covering three areas of the factory at the same time.
Current and former employees of Bakkavor’s London factories told VICE that this incident is consistent with the wider culture of bullying they have witnessed or personally experienced. They say that the factories’ workers, most being paid minimum wage, are under constant pressure from the unforgiving speed of the production line and the incessant shouting they are subjected to by managers. Even with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, the work on the production line remains largely unchanged, they say. Bakkavor has denied or said it is unaware of the allegations of bullying raised in this article.
"What is unfolding before our eyes is national scandal."
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.
"Bakkavor management at the very highest level has taken a haphazard approach to this global pandemic, their actions and inaction have put GMB members across the country in danger," says GMB Scotland Organiser David Hume. "What is unfolding before our eyes is national scandal." Hume conducted a survey of GMB members at Bakkavor's Bo'ness factory in Scotland, where almost 80 percent of people said social distancing wasn’t being enforced and 90 percent said they were concerned about catching Covid-19. Over 50 percent of workers surveyed said they would still show up to work if someone in their home had a cough.
Concerns are shared by one of the union's London organisers, Andre Marques: "The management team say they are implementing safety distances, but staff are telling me they are not. Workers are calling me very frustrated, and are stressed to attend work."
Bakkavor says employees have been issued with washable neck snoods and that it is awaiting delivery of face visors. It also says that it is following Public Health England guidelines for social distancing in its "offices, rest, changing and ancillary areas, as well as the specific PHE guidance for distancing in food manufacturing businesses".
"These measures include the roll-out of staggered breaks, extending designated smoking areas and creating greater space between colleagues in factory and packing areas."
Public Health England says that, in the food manufacturing sector, social distancing should only be followed "as far as is reasonably possible".
A worker at a site in the west of England said it would be nearly impossible to apply social distancing rules within the production lines. "Production isn't configured for social distancing on the lines. Too many people [are] using hand wash sinks at once [and] vulnerable people [are] still onsite," he said.
In London, a worker who has asthma and other medical conditions said that when she went into work, she was standing just ten centimetres away from the next person. "When I went to work, everyone was eating next to each other in the canteen, washing their hands and their food containers together," she said. She has since decided to call in sick because she is scared she will contract the virus if she goes into work.
Bakkavor has different sick pay provisions in different sites. In Scotland, workers get paid statutory sick pay (SSP) the first three weeks they are off sick, and then are given full pay for the subsequent 30 weeks they are off sick. Marques says the company has told workers in London that if they display symptoms and have worked for the company for at least a year, they could be entitled to contractual sick pay for at least two weeks when they self isolate. If the worker had already used up their sick pay allowance for that year, they would only be entitled to statutory sick pay of £95.85 per week.
The problem is that many vulnerable workers who have pre-existing conditions and have been advised by the government to stay at home even if they don't have symptoms would also only be paid £95.85 per week, he said. The same would apply to those who have family members who display symptoms, he said.
It is unclear if full contractual sick pay would apply to all workers who have spent over a year at Bakkavor. A contract seen by VICE for one Bakkavor London employee who worked for over three years at the company says they are entitled to SSP and makes no mention of contractual sick pay.
"People are a bit older and have existing health problems at the same time," Priya said about the workers at the London Park Royal sites. She added that these problems are often compounded by the stress and pressure of the work.
On Thursday, secretly filmed footage emerged of Sean Madden, the head of operations at one of the Park Royal sites, telling workers most people staying at home were not really sick but "couldn't be bothered" to come to work. He then told the workers that they would be at a higher risk of redundancy if they missed work when they are not sick – even though they may have underlying conditions or family members with symptoms of coronavirus.
A Bakkavor spokesperson told ITV News that the company is investigating the matter and apologised to staff for “any miscommunication or worry caused”. The manager in question has been given leave and will be given additional training before he returns to work. “Our advice to all our staff is to stay at home if they are feeling unwell or believe they have symptoms, or if they are self isolating due to members of their household displaying symptoms,” the spokesperson added.
"Managers will shout at women on the production line if they have done something wrong or if they are not going fast enough."
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.
The company says that no employee is refused correct equipment and that the sauces used only contain a small amount of alcohol, which together with efficient extract systems mean that the exposure to alcohol is negligible.
"Whenever I started in the morning, we are feeling like we are going to hell, because they are always yelling at people… they always use [curse words]," says Mayur. "They disrespect the ladies, they always push the ladies in the line. 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."
Priya worked making lasagnes, putting the same layer of pasta on the passing trays over and over again, with the woman next to her putting on the next layer. She says she counted almost one a second going past her on the conveyor belt. In another instance, she says, the line was going so fast it was impossible to keep up, and she was reduced to tears.
A frantic pace of work is also the case at other Bakkavor factories. A former team leader at a factory in the company’s Spalding factory says that when external auditors came from head office or supermarkets, the production line would be slowed down to make it seem as if the work was bearable. Normally, on the salad production line, 36 pots would pass in front of a worker each minute, but during audits this would be slowed down to 25 or 26.
As part of its corporate responsibility policies, Bakkavor institutes a number of inspections of its sites, as do the supermarkets it supplies. Bakkavor claims that it does a mix of announced or unannounced audits, but several current and past employees said that even when they were unannounced, practices were changed in a matter of minutes to give a different impression of what normally went on in the factory.
"Even on the unannounced audit they get a little bit of warning," said Priya. "They slow everything down, we stop taking deliveries, everything comes to a bit of a standstill and they do everything properly, and as soon as they go it is back to a hundred miles an hour."
Mayur says that, in the cookhouse, they would immediately get orders to stop cooking and start cleaning.
When auditors were expected, according to Mayur, managers would say, "Don't make any product, start to clean everything. Whenever [the auditors] come to visit the company to see how they are working, at that point they will take so much care. Otherwise they will make so much mess."
Supermarkets would also conduct "ethical audits" where they would ask about how staff are treated. But both Rajisha and Priya say that the people who attended those audits would be hand picked by management.
"One time, they did ask me to go and I did make some negative comments, and one person in that meeting told someone else [at the factory]," said Priya. The comments she made eventually got back to her manager, who made a point of telling her that he had been told what she said.
She never participated in another audit, she says.
"Because you do it as a group, if you make a negative comment people hear about it outside that meeting, so people are reluctant to say stuff," she said.
Bakkavor denied allegations about the trustworthiness of its audit process. It said that as the audits were unannounced, "it is unfounded to suggest that audits are being manipulated".
It also said that independent trade auditors conduct ethical audits and they “randomly select colleagues to be interviewed about their work experiences".
In London, there is a significant shortage of staff, so, like Rajisha, many have to do the work of several people, current and former employees say. This increases the workload and pressure on everyone else, who often have to work for hours on the same production line, without a break, even to go to the bathroom.
While some teams have systems for using the toilet, where people take turns or where the team leader replaces the worker on the line, other teams are much more disorganised, current and former employees say.
Several women have told VICE how they have been denied bathroom breaks and told to wait, sometimes for over an hour. Mayur says he saw a woman crying on the production line, begging her team leader to allow her to use the bathroom.
On two separate occasions last year, a woman working on the pastry line soiled herself because her team leader wouldn't allow her to leave the line to use the bathroom, Bakkavor employees say.
The woman suffers from several chronic illnesses, including Crohn’s disease, which requires her to use the toilet on a regular basis. During her shift in late November of 2019, she asked on three separate occasions but was refused. Finally, she soiled herself.
Sources say that her team leader, instead of consoling the woman, shouted at her, calling her "stupid".
A few weeks later, she arrived at work and was told she was suspended on health grounds. Hearing the news, she was reduced to tears, sources say. Days earlier, the company doctor had confirmed that she was fit to work if she continued to work on light duties and her need for bathroom breaks were respected.
Using the doctor’s letter and with Priya's help, she challenged the suspension and was reinstated.
Bakkavor says that it has "no knowledge of anyone soiling themselves in the factory", but that "the position is not as stated".
However, VICE has seen correspondence from a GMB rep where the incident is raised with Bakkavor management, including Sean Madden, the head of operations at one of the London Park Royal sites.
"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."
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.
Bakkavor says all machinery is checked prior to use and any defects that can cause harm are rectified prior to use. It added that machinery is regularly inspected and audited.
When VICE asked Bakkavor about the HSE prosecutions, it responded that Bakkavor Meals London had never been prosecuted. This is true, but Bakkavor Meals London is just one subsidiary of Bakkavor foods. In 2013, another London site, Bakkavor Pizza and Bread, was prosecuted after a woman lost the tip of her finger in a dough-proving machine. At the time, HSE inspector Charles Linfoot said: "Food production has one of the worst safety records within the manufacturing sector."
In May of 2019, an anonymous whistleblower sent an email to Bakkavor staff, including CEO Agust Gudmundsson, the general manager for the meals division, David Hinsley, and the head of operations at one of the London Park Royal sites, Sean Madden, alleging bullying by a senior manager at the factory, Mazhar Iqbal, referred to as Mr Maz.
"One day he came on line and start shouting on one of the factory worker for not moving her hand fast enough to make line faster," the email read. The worker then started "crying in front of the other colleague".
The email goes on to say that the person didn't make a complaint because she didn't speak good English, and because "if even she does no one will take an action".
Bakkavor says that it investigated the grievance against Iqbal and "found it to be without merit".
Other employees confirm that they have also seen Iqbal regularly shout at workers.
Priya says that in the year she spent as a union rep at Bakkavor, she brought six bullying grievances against four different managers and additional grievances over bullying were brought by a GMB full-time organiser. None of the grievances she brought against the managers were upheld.
"They never do anything if you ever bring any charge against a manager," she said. "They just say, 'We are not upholding the grievance,' and that is that."
Grievances had a tendency to get dragged out, she added, and there were delays in setting up meetings and hearings.
Rajisha says that was also her experience: "HR always supported [my manager], even after she told me to [commit] suicide," she said.
Bakkavor has said that it fully investigates any allegation of bullying and that "there was no evidence that the person in question was bullied at work". It added that its investigations are decided on "objective evidence" and that "grievance meetings are held in a timely manner once concerns have been fully investigated".
Most of the workers who face issues of bullying rarely speak up or support others when they raise grievances, Priya and Rajisha said, because they are scared of losing their jobs or overtime. Middle-management wields a lot of power at the factory, they said, dictating where you will work and whether you get overtime.
"Food production is critical, but are we honestly to believe that when Number 10 designated food production workers key workers status they were thinking of prawn cocktails and hummus? Of course not," says Hume at GMB Scotland. "These are luxury products, not essential, and the workforce must be protected."
Health and safety concerns triggered by the coronavirus pandemic have led to some stoppages across the UK and Europe, from workers at clothes delivery company ASOS who walked out over the company’s failure to implement social distancing, to posties in Scotland refusing to work under unsafe conditions.
But Priya, who shortly before leaving Bakkavor left the GMB, says that while there could be some industrial action at some of the company’s other sites, she isn’t confident it will happen in London.
Bakkavor has rarely faced a strike, a fact the company boasted about to investors when it listed on the stock market in 2017. The first ever strike took place last year at the factory in Bo’ness, Scotland over a pay dispute. Workers in Spalding were also close to taking strike action late last year, before Unite reached a pay agreement with the company.
In London, workers are too afraid to take collective action, said Priya, pointing to a failed attempt in late 2019 to organise a strike over poverty pay at the factories.
Members ended up voting in favour of a 16p pay rise that put the salary of the lowest paid just slightly above the minimum wage that they had been earning. A few months later the minimum wage rose above that level, meaning that the union’s negotiation had been superseded by a Conservative government.
"It could change," said Priya, "but something big would have to spur people into action."
*Names have been changed to protect identities