How the pandemic brought labor rights out of the cold

Romanian union leaders are defending key workers from wage cuts in industries under threat from outbreaks of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom.

On 21 August 2020, a sandwich factory in Northamptonshire, UK, that supplies food-to-go to Britain’s premier shopping chain Marks & Spencer, was about to shut its doors. Over two hundred of the 2,100 members of staff at the Greencore facility were stricken with COVID-19. All those infected with the virus had to self-isolate until they recovered. Others who were healthy also had to stay at home.

However, the workers, from dozens of different countries, faced the prospect of living on only £95 per week —the statutory sick pay (SSP) offered by the British government. This figure can hardly cover the rent in a city where the average rent is over £150 a week for a one bedroom flat, and the minimum wage is £350 before tax. 

The employees were desperate. Despite living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the staff were even forced to knock on the doors of charities, and ask for free food to get by.  

Coming to their defence were local leaders of the union. They agonized over how to secure a living wage from the employer for their furloughed staff. At the frontline of this battle for a fair deal were three of the sandwich factory’s union representatives, who worked on the site in hygiene, quality control and health and safety, and they came from from the Romanian capital of Bucharest, the Moldovan capital of Chișinău, and the Romanian port of Galați.

The branch secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) is Nicolae Macari, 28 years old, from Chisinau. Before coming to the UK, he worked as a waiter, a barman and a restaurant manager in Bulgaria, and two generations of his family now work at Greencore.

Gelu Dumitru Manole, 39 years old, from Bucharest, used to work in pubs and restaurants in Bucharest, and has worked for five years in Greencore in the cleaning department, ever since he first arrived in the UK.

“I had a cousin in England,” he says. “And he knew that I was struggling at home with the money. He bought me a plane ticket and said: ‘Come here and stay with me till you get on your feet’. I stayed a few months, and after that I took life in my own hands. He left last year to Canada with his wife and children. The reason he gave was that ‘the community of Romanians has grown too much, so I am going to Canada’.”

Florentina Pasisnic is a 50 year-old hairdresser, who used to run her own salon in Galați before moving to the UK, and now works in quality control in the factory.

“I had never been anywhere outside of Romania, until I came here,” she says. “At that time, I borrowed some money and I left with 100 pounds in my pocket. I knew enough English to get by, because I liked to learn English in school. I liked to speak it, but who did I have to talk to? My dog didn’t want to hear me speak English. So I came here.”

So how did these three Romanian nationals help lead a battle for fair pay in central England during a global pandemic?

Greencore: A United Nations of Sandwich-Makers

A total of 2,100 work at Greencore on three shifts – daytime, afternoon and night – prepare classic British sandwiches, wraps and rolls, such as Egg and Watercress, and Smoked Ham and Mustard Mayonnaise, which have a shelf life of no more than 48 hours. 

“We are focused on food to go,” says Macari.

Around 90 percent of the staff are non-British, including Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Indians, Bulgarians, Russians, Hungarians, Greeks, Italians, and Indians. 

“About 47-50 languages ​​spoken in Greencore,” says Macari. “It’s very complicated to say who is who and from where, it’s easier to think where they are not from.” A rule says that everybody must speak English while they are working on the assembly lines. “In the canteen, during a lunch break, we can speak any language we want. But coming back to work we have to speak English,” Macari explains.

The greatest percent of the workforce are Romanian, about 50 percent, including those with Romanian citizenship from Moldova, like Macari. 

According to official data, the number of Romanians in Northampton reached 12,000 last year, compared to a total population of 220,000.

Greencore produces 717 million sandwiches and 123 million servings of semi-finished food per year in all its factories.

The factory is cold, as sandwich ingredients need to stay crisp and fresh. This means temperatures are low on the assembly line, and even lower in the refrigerator, where workers receive extra pay of a few pence more per hour. “It is a person’s choice to work in such conditions,” says Macari.

Up to 20 workers can be on one assembly line preparing sandwiches, standing close together. Workers share cars to come to work, and often live in crowded accommodation, with up to three staying in one room, and ten in a small house.

This is the problem.

The virus thrives in cold air. It passes between people who are less than one metre away from each other. The virus is also airborne, and new research is beginning to show how it can spread through ventilation systems.

Therefore Greencore was among the kinds of factories vulnerable to a Covid-19 outbreak.

Find out more: Romanians on Britain’s Frontline Against COVID-19

After the Polish, Romanians are now the second largest group of migrants in the UK by nationality, and their numbers have been increasing in the last six years to 427,000 at the end of 2019, at a growing rate which not even Britain’s exit from the EU can curb.

Tens of thousands of Romanians are working in British factories and farms, where they pick, process and prepare food for the British people’s dinner plates, and have been helping keep British businesses surviving through both a pandemic, and a recession. These are jobs at the frontline of the COVID-19 epidemic, especially those in abattoirs and meat preparation – the industrial sector which has seen the highest amount of outbreaks of the virus.

“Migrant workers in meat packing jobs in the UK are predominantly from Romania,” says Bev Clarkson, head of food, drink and agriculture sector, at UK-based union, Unite. “A few years ago it was from Poland, but the Polish workers have come, settled and made lives, and a lot have gone back.” 

Workers in this sector face minimum wages, often crowded accommodation and transport, long hours and tough conditions in cold, draughty factories. Many first arrive through a Romanian recruitment agency, which often asks for upfront costs, while other staff are on zero hours contracts, which means they only work and are paid for the hours when the company needs them, without a guaranteed income, and sometimes cannot earn a living wage.

“With Romanians now it’s the same situation as with the Polish a few years ago,” says Clarkson. “Factory workers are promised a land of milk and honey and they’re not getting that when they get here.”

2020 has exacerbated these problems with the threat of COVID-19. From the 26 major outbreaks at factories and farms reported in the UK, we have discovered that Romanians are working at 22 of these locations, with hundreds working on single sites.

Because the UK does not report on infections by nationality, it’s impossible to determine how many Romanians have contracted COVID-19 in these workplaces.

Explore the data from your mobile phone here.

“Our workers are just like the doctors and nurses”

The pandemic arrived in the UK in March 2020. To counter the spread, the UK Government ordered everyone but essential workers into lockdown. At the Northampton sandwich factory, two thirds of its staff, 1,400, were sent home. The factory worked at minimum capacity.

During the lockdown, the union helped the one third of staff still working in the factory to be paid extra. “It was for their courage and skill to work during the pandemic,” says Manole, “just like the doctors and the nurses.”

For those who stayed at home, the Government stepped in to pay 80 percent of their salaries through the furlough scheme. “Many consider that this is money given by the Government,” says Pasisnic. “But this is in fact our money, because we have paid taxes.”

However, the staff of the factory are paid close to the minimum wage, at around £8.88 per hour. Therefore 80 percent of this figure is £7.04. This is below the lowest acceptable living standards for an employee. “It’s hard to get by with this cash in the UK,” says Manole. 

The company would not step in and pay the remaining 20 per cent. 

“We accused Greencore of not wanting to pay people on the assembly line 100% during the pandemic,” says Manole.

The union pointed out that there was a level of hypocrisy here from the company.

“If someone in management takes medical leave, he is paid 100% [up to a total 16 weeks per year]. Their contracts are different. We carried out campaigns against this inequality.”

In response, Greencore stated: “In the event that colleagues were required to self-isolate, they were of course paid in line with the terms of their contract. This ranges from full pay to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), depending on the type of contract.”

On 4 July, the workers were called back to Greencore to work again, as the company moved closer to full capacity.

Macari says that Greencore had taken steps to prevent the spread, such as putting plastic barriers between the workers, giving visors to the staff, and marking out spaces to ensure social distancing. “They did many things to protect us from COVID,” he says.

But one issue was managing to maintain social distancing. This was not helped by the vague Government rules, which stated workers had to stay one metre away from each other and two metres ‘if they could’.  “Between June and July, it was very difficult to keep people under control,” says Manole. “When I saw them, I was always trying to tell them: ‘Stay two metres away’, and ‘Don’t stay there’. Many did not want to listen. You know how the Romanian is. He contradicts you on everything, because he knows more than you do.”

On 27 July, four workers tested positive, and by the beginning of August, further cases appeared at the factory. Macari was among those infected.

Last year, at the age of 27, Nicolae Macari became the branch secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).

“I live with my whole family in one house – my mother, my father, my wife, my brother and his wife, who all work at Greencore, and my baby daughter,” says Macari. “When I came home on Saturday after work, my mother fell sick with a fever. I made my mother, my father, and my wife take a test the next day.”

All their tests came back positive.

“Normally, I share a bed with my wife, and I eat with her, of course I don’t even have to test myself. I’m definitely already positive. I will not shy away from my wife.”

Everyone in the house was isolated for 14 days, and did not have the right to leave even over the front doorstep. Macari’s friends brought food, drink and essential items to the door, and he transferred the money to his friends through online banking.

They had to separate the house in two, so the infected members of the family did not mix with Macari’s brother and his sister-in-law, who tested negative. There was further worry because she was pregnant. “You don’t know how the virus can manifest itself,” he says. 

Then his baby daughter, 10 months old, showed a high temperature.

“As she is my first child, I didn’t really know how to react when I saw that she had a fever, and that she didn’t sleep at night,” he adds. “I was thinking of getting treatment for her, to do something.”

After three days, her temperature dropped, but at the factory, the number of infections started to rise. 

“The problem was that no one moved fast to do track & trace of the virus, to see who was in contact with who,” says Manole. “It got a little out of control.”

Once the numbers reached 70 on 10 August, a private testing company called Randox tested around 1,100 staff. The results were grim – around 222 new positive cases, making a total of 292, close to one third of those tested.

“There was a big panic,” says Manole. The impact was national. Staff from the Ministry of Health in London visited the factory.

“The company did everything the Government told them: put that there, do that, sort that out,” says Manole. “They followed the rules, but the problem was that it was too late.”

  However the factory stayed open. There were concerns that the virus was spreading from the plant to other sites. Workers from Greencore were car-pooling with those from another factory, which was also hit with the virus. Another fear was that recruitment agencies, who hire Romanians for temporary work at different sites, were sending staff who had just finished working in one factory to another site, risking cross contamination. In reaction to this, the director of public health from the county asked the recruitment agencies to stop sending workers to more than one site.

Northampton was becoming a major hotspot of the viral spread.

“When there were cases in Greencore, our town was very close to entering total isolation,” says Manole.

On 21 August, the Ministry of Health, through its local branch, ordered the factory to close for two weeks for a deep clean.

Fearful of the effect of this spread, the Government even published regulations to force anyone who worked at Greencore in early August to isolate or face a £100 fine. 

With 300 members of staff sick, and the factory closed, how much should the company pay its employees?  

Initially, the workers were left with the bare minimum, only £95 per week, the statutory sick pay from the government. 

“I was infected with COVID, and I have to isolate myself with the whole family,” says Macari. Which means I and my whole family will only get £95 a week each. To understand the difference: an average weekly salary is about £320-£330. This is a very big difference.” 

The union still wanted to put pressure on the employers to pay for the furlough.

“When the cases began in the factory, we put pressure on them,” says Manole. “We said that if everyone was isolated, we wouldn’t be able to live. But they did not give in. There were zero results.” 

 A strike wasn’t possible, due to the UK’s tough laws against industrial action.

“With nice words it wouldn’t have worked,” says Manole. “We needed to go to the newspapers.” 

This started in the local press, and then went national. There were interviews on ITV, Sky and the BBC.

The company gave the staff who were forced to self-isolate in August and September 80 percent of their salaries, and offered to give their annual bonus of £400 to workers early.  

“It was a small victory in a big war,” says Manole.

Gelu Dumitru Manole sees his work within the union as a continuous war for rights.

This was not just happening on the Northampton site. Across the country, employees risked going hungry when an outbreak hit their place of work. In Wales, another Romanian worker at a meat plant, where half the staff are Romanian, talks of the financial threat of isolation. At his site, many were working shoulder-to-shoulder on assembly lines. He is not allowed to speak to the press, but explains that when he contracted COVID-19, he was also left with £95 a week. He lives in shared accommodation with two other Romanians sleeping in the same room.

“Rents here are a disaster,” he adds. “It’s 85 pounds per week for one person.”

This meant all six members of his house had to isolate, while living on only £10 a week, at the same time as suffering from a virus which went on to kill over 45,000 people in the UK. “We tried to explain to the company, but they did not want to help us at all,” he says. “We managed to cope with the help of friends.”

Since then the factory bosses have issued a welfare fund for those employees struggling with COVID-19 and living on sick pay, which has helped, according to staff. “But not everyone who applies is accepted,” he adds, “only those in a really bad situation.”

Back in Northampton, some employees even resorted to using food banks, charities that offer free food to those in need, of which there are over 2,000 in the UK, and have become a symbol for the huge wealth disparity of the country.

The union also launched an initiative, together with a local NGO, the Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council (NREC), to help with food vouchers for the staff. There were 170 requests for vouchers worth £100.

In the meantime, the local branch of the Union established a hardship fund to help struggling families working for Greencore. They are asking for cash from donors to supplement family incomes for those in desperate need – and have so far raised £5,500. 

Therefore the plight of workers at the factory has become a cause for charity.

By September, the company fully restored production at the site. The union continues to fight for fully-salaried sick pay, and organises Zoom meetings between its east European and British union leaders, and updates and informs the workers on the state of their campaign, in English, Polish, Romanian and Russian, for Russian-speakers from Moldova, and those from the Baltics. 

According to official data, 12,000 Romanians live in Northampton.

When we speak to the staff in the middle of October, the unions fear those on sick pay risk reverting to being paid the standard rate of £95. 

At the end of the month, the company tells us: “All of those who were required to self-isolate and were contractually on SSP received 80 percent of their basic pay throughout August, September and October. We implemented this in recognition of the financial impact that those on SSP were facing.”

There are no more cases of outbreaks originating at the site, but kids at the local schools have contracted COVID-19, and brought it back to their parents who work at the factory. When we last speak to Manole, around 20 parents who work at the firm are isolating with their kids, while Greencore tells us only three members of staff have the virus.

“Tomorrow,” says Manole, “we hope to have the last round of salary negotiations.” The branch is led by a mix of Romanian, Polish, and English leaders, who are joining together to continue to negotiate for better wages.

“I can say that it’s not extraordinary and the members have not accepted the offer,” says Manole, as he signs off, ready to join his team.

Find out more: Union membership in the UK is rising from an all-time low

Trade Unions are member-run organisations that allow workers to act together to make changes to their working practises, conditions and salaries.

Paid-up members of a union in a factory, office, hospital or other workplace elect one of their members to represent them in discussions with management, who is called a rep.

The role of their rep is to negotiate with bosses over issues of pay, pensions, worker safety, and unfair treatment, and also to tackle issues such as discrimination and racism. If the members feel the management has failed to listen to its demands, they can organise a strike, where the staff refuse to work.

Since 1871, trade unions in the UK have operated legally. Their initial purpose was to reform and improve the conditions of workers in industries. Later, the movement joined politics by financing the British Labour Party, the main opposition party in the UK, which many unions continue to fund. 

In 2016, the Conservative Party passed the Trade Union Bill, which limits members’ rights to legally strike.

Following this law, union membership hit a low of 6.23 million. Since then it has risen to 6.44 million members in 2019, and accounts for 23.5% of all UK workers. 

Women massively outnumber men as union members in the UK, with 3.69 million female members of unions, as opposed to 2.75 million for men.

In Romania about 20 percent of workers are members of unions, according to Adrian Dohotaru, a Romanian MP who is working on a new legislation in this field.

“The Socialists here are not like our Socialists in Romania”

Around one third of Greencore’s staff – 750 – are members of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, a 175-year old union that began in Manchester.  

Their role is to protect workers’ rights, negotiate better working conditions, and bargain with management for higher salaries. 

From these, almost half are Romanian. Last year, they voted Nicolae Macari to be their branch secretary. 

“If we go to negotiate a salary increase or something, the members decide, not me,” he says. “The last word remains with the members.”

A major issue is that many staff do not speak English. “If you have a problem and you don’t know English, how do you solve the problem?” says Macari. “You can’t go to the management and speak Romanian.”

  To encourage others to join the union, he says it’s best to lead by example.

“My position is: if you want to join the union, you’re welcome,” says Macari. “If you don’t want to join the union, no problem. If you come to me and ask me: ‘Nicule, can you explain to me what are the advantages of joining the union?’, I sit down to clarify them. But I do not come to you like: ‘Come and join the union, it’s good for you!’.”

“I think I have to prove to you through what I do, such as if you know that a friend of yours had a problem and the union has solved the problem, or another friend has seen that through the union their pay has increased. I want to prove that I am effective, rather than say that I am effective. Everything must be about actions, not words.”

Last year, the union managed to agree with the company to see through “the largest salary negotiation in the last 20 years of the factory” according to Manole. This was 4 percent, and “usually in negotiations you can not get more than 2-2.5%,” he says.

Around 5.4% of Romanian-born residents in the UK – 23,000 – were members of unions in 2019, according to the latest estimates from the Labour Market Directorate of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. This is well below the numbers for the Polish, where 12.8% in the UK are in unions, with 69,000.

This is still a long way to go to reach the 23.5% figure for all employees in the UK who are a member of a union. What this shows is a massive capacity for growth among east Europeans workers in the UK.

“A lot Romanians are joining the unions,” says Bev Clarkson, head of food, drink and agriculture sector, at UK-based union Unite, “and we are seeing them coming forward and saying this isn’t right, and we want to be a rep. And if this pandemic has done anything, it has helped them to realise that they have a voice, and they have come to the trade unions and said  ‘we want to make sure that this doesn’t happen’.”

But not everyone wants to join.

One issue is that many staff only come for three or four months to work in the company and then leave for another job. “They are migrants,” says Manole. “They are not stable.”

In the city center, the Romanian language can be heard often, especially on weekends.

Another problem is that Romanians are skeptical of organised labour. In the last decades, Romanian union leaders at home attracted a reputation as corrupt and ready to negotiate with political parties for personal favors to the detriment of worker solidarity. In the 90s, prominent figures among union leaders used their position to become politicians who amassed large amounts of wealth. Union power also decreased in 2011, when a new law declared that at least 15 employees were needed to form a union in a workplace. Approximately 92% of Romanian companies have fewer than 15 employees, says Adrian Dohotaru, an independent member of the parliament. Many jobs are also on temporary contracts, and employees fear for their position, so do not join organised labour.

“People say ‘no matter how awful the conditions are, I don’t feel like unionizing now, because maybe I’ll get fired’,” says Dohotaru. “Anyway I want to stay only a year or two, after that I go elsewhere.” According to his estimate, around 20 percent of the workforce in Romania is currently unionised, with the majority  represented by state employees, below the 23.5% rate in the UK. 

“I’m a socialist, but the socialists here are not like our socialists in Romania,” says Manole. “Here socialism is seen differently from how it is at home. In five years of activity in this union, I met many on the left, including a discussion with the previous leader of the Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn. I was struck by how normal the parliamentarians are here compared to ours at home. The casualness with which they talk to people and how normal they are, as people. When you see them on TV coming to work by bike or by subway – that’s exactly what happens. They are not like our slick leaders back home.” 

But Manole has been encouraged by a new enthusiasm for the union. Following their victory in August, he has signed up dozens of new members, and, together with his fellow workers, 100 new employees joined the union in the first two weeks of October.

“People have realised we are there to fight for them,” says Manole.

Joining a union is not free. It does cost around £15 per month, which is a cut from a salary that is already hovering above the minimum wage.

“Many Romanians there believe that to pay three pounds a week is too much,” says Florentina Pasisnic. “But I try to explain that it’s exactly like car insurance, you don’t pay it at the moment when something is happening to you. You pay it in case something happens to you.

“Then I tell them ‘How many packets of cigarettes do you smoke per day?’ ‘One packet, a packet and a half’. ‘Come on, the union costs much less than a packet of cigarettes per day and insures you’. If you need legal advice, from a lawyer, or a notary, you pay absolutely nothing.”

Many are reluctant, but she gives one example: the husband of a woman who is a member of the union. “He always shouts and screams, and he is the boss of the line. He says that there is no need to join, no need. When he had a problem, the management made disciplinary actions against him, he said to me: ‘Hang on, I also want to join the union’.

 Right at the moment when people have problems, everyone wants to join the union.”

Another Wales-based Romanian union rep for Unite, who is not allowed to speak to the press, tells us: “Our factory was really a mess,” he says. “The employers had no respect for the migrant workers, they treated us like shit, and I found out about the union and at the gates of the factory I started a campaign.”

Later, his team’s victories included such diverse issues as combating racism and discrimination from top managers and improving the factory’s toilet facilities. “I learned how we can organise, and our factory changed a lot,” he adds. “Now the management are scared of the union because they know we have power.”

The rep has increased membership from 70 to 400. “Romanians are organising more,” he adds. The union structures of the UK could be replicated in Romania, he also believes. “We could do great things there”, he says.

As an example of a tool that defends workers, he cites ACAS, an Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service which gives employees free, impartial advice on workplace rights, rules and best practice.

Now Pasisnic is taking this a step further. After five years in the union she had now finished a business administration degree.

“After I joined the union, I began to learn about the laws and human rights, and I went on courses. Now we have some new managers and directors and I say to them: ‘If you need something, tell me’. I am confident because I know the labor laws. And no one can turn me around and say,  ‘No, dear lady, that’s the law’. I know. I reply ‘come on, are you kidding me? That’s how it works’.”

Romanian colleagues who she did not know came to her. They approached her directly: “Oh, you are Florentina!”. She asked, “Yes, but how do you know me?”. “Well, someone told me that I have to look for you. They said ‘Florentina, with purple-red hair’. And if I need help, you would help me.” “It’s flattering to me that they know that if they come to Greencore Northampton they know they have to approach Florentina,” she says.

Florentina Pasisnic says that many Romanians hear about her as they arrive at the factory. She is “Florentina with purple-red hair” that can help them.

All three Romanian union leaders in Greencore say that the union has empowered them – and has given them a sense of self-respect.

“When you have a position in a union, you do not negotiate with people among you, you negotiate with directors, with important people in the company,” says Macari. “I believe that union gives you more power to demonstrate your argument, not only to shout about what needs to be done. To demonstrate why it should happen. This changes you as a human being. It makes you stronger, more sure of yourself, and with more belief in yourself.”

This has also increased their self-worth, says Manole.

 “When I came here, I came with that Romanian mentality,” says Manole. “You change a lot when you leave your country, you see something else. Now if I go home after five years ,people would say: ‘This boy is crazy.’”

What this has taught the workers is a sense of solidarity.

“If someone comes to me, it doesn’t matter who: Romanian, Moldovan, Polish, and says to me: Can you help me? Of course I’ll help him,” says Macari. “I met Englishmen who asked me for help. Even if they are English, they may not be doing so well, and do not have the power to talk to [management]. People are different and they are quite embarrassed to do something. People don’t  believe in themselves to do something, that’s why they need someone else to speak on their behalf.”

“If we don’t help each other, there isn’t really a future, it doesn’t matter in which country you go to work. I understand that the dream for all people is to go abroad, to become billionaires and to live very well. But life is not like that. It would be great to help each other so that we can develop better together.” 

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund.