Michael Gove has been an influential figure in the Conservative Party for a good while, now. He’s been in and around the government in various guises since 2010 (education, justice, environment) and has a number of connections, including Rupert Murdoch and the Henry Jackson Society. Despite a bungled attempt to become Prime Minister after David Cameron did a runner following the EU Referendum in 2016, he is likely to remain among the main contenders to take over from the increasingly powerless Theresa May, should she eventually run out of road.
Unfortunately for the people we represent in the food industry, Mr Gove is using his current role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make the case for automation, at the expense of jobs. In a wide-ranging speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, which began on January 3rd 2018, Gove outlined his belief that food and drink manufacturers should move towards automated production systems, rather than relying on “low-cost migrant workers”. He told FoodManuafacture.co.uk: “We want to ensure that people recognise you cannot rely on importing an endless supply of cheap labour in order to maintain a competitive edge”.
Firstly, it’s curious that Michael Gove should immediately focus on the migrant element of labour involved in the food industry. Food manufacture is one of the UK’s most profitable and yet, sadly exploited industries in terms of workers, who themselves come from all walks of life and aren’t simply ‘imported migrants’. The BFAWU has long argued that food workers play an essential part in the success of the UK economy and should be properly rewarded for their efforts. We believe that trained, well paid, motivated workforces keep businesses successful and profitable, whilst keeping staff turnover to a minimum, thus protecting their skills-base. Indeed, only recently Warburtons worked with the BFAWU to secure a package for their employees that invested significantly in their terms and conditions, skills and quality of life. This investment in people, rather than automation won’t make Warburtons less competitive; in fact it will more than likely strengthen their status as the UK’s market leader in bread.
We should know by now what happens when workers are poorly paid, poorly trained and are deterred from joining Trade Unions; greedy bosses cut corners, the quality of food and hygiene standards fall and workers are exploited. We need strict regulations and control of the food industry, which protects workers, retains skills in the labour market and ensures top quality products for customers and consumers. The UK food industry deserves workers who are trained to the highest standards and paid properly, not robots knocking out cheap products in a soulless, de-regulated system, just to satisfy CEOs and share-holders.
What concerns the BFAWU and its members about Gove’s sudden dash for automation, is the threat he now carries to countless jobs across the country. In his Oxford Farming Conference speech, he demonstrated a total lack of understanding of our industry and showed complete contempt for those who work in it. His strategy for economic growth, competition, investment and profitability in UK manufacturing amounts to nothing other than a ‘Final Solution’ for the people we represent in a vital industry.
Since 2010, the Conservatives have proven themselves to be the champions of zero hour contracts, job insecurity and low pay. Rather than put forward meaningful and credible strategies to create job opportunities, invest in skills and improve pay in food manufacture, they have decided to pursue an agenda that fails both workers, their families and the industry as a whole. This is nothing other than a jobs-grab and Michael Gove has officially put all UK food industry workers on notice. It’s now down to those that work within it to respond; and he can be damned sure that they will.
Ian Hodson (BFAWU National President)