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Vol. 75/No. 36      October 10, 2011

UK agency workers strike
banana plant, win support
LUTON, England—Agency (temporary) workers at Pratt’s Bananas here walked out and set up a picket line September 1, forcing the company to retreat from its plans to downgrade their wages and working conditions.

“The strike was not planned at all,” Katarzyna Zurowska, one of the workers, told the Militant. “When we turned up to work and read the company notice announcing new conditions—effectively threatening us with the sack [firing] if we didn’t accept them—we said ‘enough is enough.’”

Conditions at Pratt’s, which supplies bananas to supermarket chains including Tesco, won notoriety in 2007 when a BBC radio program drew attention to the grueling schedule and mistreatment of workers. The workers won union recognition in 2008 after a successful union-organizing drive by the GMB.

But today the bulk of Pratt’s 500 workers are considered to be employed by a separate agency, and as such are not represented by the union. The company has targeted these workers to boost its profits.

Agency workers arriving for the afternoon shift joined the strike and picket. “There were over 200 of us altogether,” Zurowska said, showing us a list of the names and addresses of all the strikers. “Truck drivers refused to do deliveries until 3:00 p.m. The next day we put up a picket at 6:00 a.m., faced by a lot of police with dogs. But our solidarity forced the company to back down. They’re now delaying the new conditions until December.”

Zurowska came to the U.K. in 2006 from Kraków, Poland, where she had a small retail shop. She has not been involved in anything like this before.

“I started working at Pratt’s as a packer over two years ago,” she said. “Then we were packing nine boxes of loose bananas per hour. They then increased it to 12 boxes and now it’s 14 boxes per hour.

“The work is very physical. All the workers are poorly paid, but the agency workers are on less, minimum wage.”

Most of the workers are immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, as well as from Albania and the Indian subcontinent.

According to workers, the company wants to change the pay guidelines and schedules to eliminate overtime pay and double-time pay for weekend work.

Pratt’s is also pressing to put agency workers on “zero hour” contracts. Instead of set weekly schedules, agency workers would be called to work whenever and for however many hours the company decides.

“Some of us have worked here for five years but still the agency doesn’t give us a permanent contract, they just give temporary ones, and now with zero hours contracts we have no stability at all,” Kristina Bulkyte told Luton News.

“The company says they need the changes because of the high interest payments on their loans. But we don’t see why the workers —agency or permanent—should pay for the credit crunch,” Zurowska said.
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