The following account is based on three and a half years of experience working and organising in Bakkavor, a major multi-national food manufacturing factory. Bakkavor supplies most major UK supermarkets with ready-meals and fresh, chilled produce. Our focus during this time was to build independent workers’ power – through informal and “unofficial” actions, meetings and newsletters. Six AngryWorkers passed through the Bakkavor turnstiles. One of us lasted a week. Two lasted two to four months. One of us was there for six months, another for two years. I was there for three and a half years, and after a year on the job decided to become union reps in the existing union to see what the scope was for independent organising within these established structures. In such a big workplace with different sites, it was good to have a spread of people who could glean different insights. However, we were not there long enough together to develop a more concerted effort, which would have been needed to engage more workers and make our efforts inside the union more of a force.

These extracts focus mostly on the labour and production process itself, the workers engaged with them, and their experiences at Bakkavor. For the full chapters on our time working and organising in Bakkavor, read our book Class Power on Zero Hours, and our interview with Notes from Below in this issue. For even more writing on our organising efforts, see our website.

An introduction to the Bakkavor ready-meal factory

My factory was part of a group of four sites in and around Park Royal in west London. There is my site, Elveden, that produces over a hundred different types of ready- meal; a smaller site called Abbeydale, on the other side of the North Circular, which makes mainly fried Indian snacks plus some pies; and Cumberland, the mothership, produces 80% of the UK’s houmous, plus some ready-meals. All the sites do their own thing but they are connected: there is an internal transport system that ferries items between the sites, and the stock system is shared between the sites so you can see who has got what. This internal transport system also sends the finished goods from the factories to Premier Park, Bakkavor’s nearby warehouse, where they get shipped out to the supermarkets’ own distribution centres.

Across all the sites, up to around 4,000 workers are employed in total. Around 2,100 people are in the union’s bargaining unit (GMB has formal recognition), meaning they are permanent, hourly-paid workers. Another 200-400 would be agency workers, and the rest office or technical staff. The Premier Park warehouse has the fewest workers (around 100) and Cumberland is the largest (around 1500 workers).

Each site has its own management team and its own group of workers. There is some crossover though, as some older employees might have been transferred between sites at some point. Agency workers are also sent to different sites so get an idea of the similarities and differences between them. Many people have family members within the company, either at the same or a different site. The group of internal drivers, who ferry goods around between the sites, have the privileged position of going to the other sites on a daily basis.

I got my foot in the Bakkavor door as a temp worker for the Christmas rush. I was told to get to the office in Park Royal at 8am for a 9am induction at the factory. We were shown around all the different areas of the factory: “Low Risk” where they made the pastries and dealt with uncooked food, “High Care’‘ where you only handled cooked food so the rules are tighter around temperatures and contamination. There were blue coats and white coats and different coloured mobcaps and hairnets: agency workers wore green or orange mobcaps, permanents wore blue or white mobcaps, managers wore red ones, and those responsible for health and safety had yellow ones.

We got the obligatory “hard-sell” from the union, despite the fact that people were on short-term, fixed contracts. It seemed to me that people were deliberately misled. They were called “permanents”, but actually, were only guaranteed a permanent job for three months over the Christmas period, which many of them weren’t aware of. It wasn’t much of a sales pitch, but most people signed up – not aware that there was a monthly fee, nor that they would probably be out of a job in three months’ time.

Working as an agency worker on and off over the next year, I was sent to all three sites. I worked the day shift, starting at 7am, as well as the late shift that ended at 3am. The jobs were numerous but the one thing they all had in common was that they were mind-numbingly repetitive. The worst part was the bullying and treatment of the managers, many of whom are on their petty power trips. It was an infantilising, and often demeaning, experience.

Whilst the permanent workforce at Bakkavor London was largely Gujarati, with a sizeable Tamil and lesser Goan minority, the workers at Premier Park (warehouse) are all mainly younger guys from Eastern Europe, in particular Romania. 80% of all the agency workers were from Eastern Europe; in 2016 they were Polish, but now, they are from Romania. The rest are also a few younger Somalian guys too, who have often lived in other countries like Italy, Norway or Sweden.

Bakkavor also has an ageing workforce, the majority in the 55-64 age bracket. I think this was a huge factor in the docility of the workforce in general, even when the union was ramping up its activity. There was an aversion to risk, a palpable fear of going on strike, and a resignation that only comes with living a hard life with few victories. This isn’t to say there weren’t some older workers who were up for the fight. Some of them had worked in many different factories around west London for the last 40 years and had lived through more militant times. But the fact is, anyone approaching pensionable age would face a tough time on the job market. If you can’t speak reasonable English, the chances are even worse. The average turnover of staff in Bakkavor as a whole is 22%, which adds to the overall lack of unity amongst workers.

The London factories have, I would say, over 50% women workers. While there is relative parity across the entire workforce, the work roles themselves are strictly divided along gender lines. Only women work on the assembly line, unless there is a machine that needs to be operated, in which case, a man steps in. This machine might only require you to press a button every two seconds but is still seen as a man’s job. Men take up more supervisory positions at the shop floor level too. This may be because men speak slightly better English and have better reading and writing skills, which itself would be an expression of their more privileged status. But discrimination and sexism definitely does play some part in the promotion process, because there are many male team leaders whose English skills and general competency are so poor that you wonder how they have managed to blag it for so long.

However, the main divisions are not across gender lines. Rather they are between: the “unskilled” (who make up 50-60% of the whole workforce) and “semi-skilled” workers and the so-called “Red Caps”, who are in management positions and earn at least a pound more an hour; and between the permanent and temp workers. While 75% of the workforce are on permanent contracts, like most of the bigger workplaces around here, they use agency staff to a greater or lesser extent depending on how busy they are. The language problems and cultural clashes between these different groups make communication difficult. It’s not just that peoples’ bad English skills means single words are shouted and people complain about bad manners. The general work situation compounds the issue: some of the assembly lines have doubled in speed over the last few years, which adds to the pressure and peoples’ irritability. Like everywhere else, it seems that there are more and more middle managers accompanied by more and more disorganisation… No wonder people are stressed and take it out on each other.

However, it’s actually pretty amazing that people from such different countries are, for perhaps the first time in history, working together under the same conditions. Our comrade who worked in Hygiene on the night shift wrote:

“The hard conditions (heavy and dirty job, working nights, harassment) bring a certain level of solidarity between us. Despite the tensions I have described most co-workers are friendly and willing to give good advice. There clearly is a bond created by the fact of being stuck together in hell…”

The Work Process

After working at Bakkavor for three and a half years, first as an agency worker inside the factory and then later, as a permanent forklift driver, I got a decent overview of the work process in each of the different sites.

Site 1: Cumberland Houmous

Raw materials arrive and are unloaded by forklift drivers. This is taken into different parts of the factory to be stored and unpacked. The houmous production room contained four or five giant mixers that make the houmous. Only men were given the chance to operate these mixing machines because of the “heavy” nature of the work – they had to pick up and pour in the giant bags of tahini and buckets of chickpeas. (It wouldn’t have been impossible for a woman to do, yet they were never offered the chance to be trained up for this “higher skilled” job.) The consistency and texture were checked by the operator. Once it was ready, it was decanted into big metal trolley containers and fed into a machine that spurted out the required amount into the container. One person would be in charge of keeping the conveyer fed with plastic houmous pots. The machine would stop frequently, for example if one space wasn’t filled with a pot. Once the pot was filled with houmous, the lid was affixed by hand. The rim of the pot would be sealed by machine and fed along the conveyor into the adjacent part of the factory for sleeving and packing. It was really noisy. You had to wear ear protectors which meant that verbal communication was virtually impossible. Plus it stank. Who knew chickpeas could make the air so rank?

When the pots of houmous came through into the packing area, they were funnelled to one of the five assembly lines. At the top of the line, it was four or five women’s job to “sleeve”, meaning they had to put the thin cardboard sleeve that names the product over the plastic houmous container. You had to be fast! Once the sleeve was on, the pots all went through a metal detector. And then the women at the bottom end of the line had to place the sleeved pots into thin cardboard boxes that held six or eight pots. These were put into “outer [cardboard] boxes”. Women on the other side of the line would make up these cardboard boxes at lightning speed. The outer boxes had to be sealed with red tape, also put on by hand. A guy was standing at the end of the line stacking these outer boxes onto a pallet, bent over for hours at a time.

The level of co-operation needed to keep this operation moving smoothly was pretty stupendous. If you didn’t make the boxes fast enough, there was nothing to put the houmous pots into. They ended up falling on the floor. If you couldn’t keep up with the line, houmous would stack up and end up falling on the floor. You had to put barcode labels on the finished boxes as they came off the line, and if you ran out of labels, the houmous, you guessed it, fell to the floor. It was in the interest of the permanents to train up the temps fast, otherwise the whole operation would go to pot. But there is zero autonomy over the work itself. The line dictates how fast you work. Because your work relies so heavily on the work done before, if something goes wrong, you blame the workers before you who cocked up. This undermines the idea of “working together”.

When the product line switched, for example, from Tesco Sweet Chilli Houmous to Sainsbury’s Organic Houmous, you would have a couple of minutes to change everything round – new sleeves, new boxes, new labels. But the general intensity of the work was unrelenting. I tried to use the time by talking to as many people as I could. One interesting thing I realised: nobody I asked had ever eaten houmous!

Cumberland ready-meals

The Cumberland site also had a ready-meals section made up of five assembly lines. The ready-meal lines start by the wall that separates the food processing area with the packing area. A small square opening in the wall connects the lines between the two areas. Next to this opening there is a small window that allows workers to see what is going on in the other department. Nevertheless, communication between the two departments is not easy, which usually produces confusion and delays. The lines in the packing department are very short, less than three metres long. The main purpose of the line is for the product to go under a prehistoric printer and through a scanner that makes sure that the barcode is read correctly. The arrangement of the line and the number of workers changes depending on the product coming from the ready- meals area. Some products require just two operatives while others require up to eight workers on the line, squeezing next to each other in a very limited space. Together with the fact that container sizes are different depending on which product you’re packing means that automating the whole thing would be difficult. Again, all the operatives working on the line are women, except the guy who places the boxes on the pallet or inside plastic baskets.

Site 2 and 3: Elveden high care and low risk; Abbeydale samosa line; goods-in.

The Elveden and Abbeydale factories are split into two main parts: “Low Risk” and “High Care”. Low Risk was where: you made the pastries before they would go to be cooked. Typically, you would need one woman to put the pastry on the assembly line at the start of the line. If the pastry was sticky and difficult to handle, you would sometimes have another person picking out the good pastry for this woman. Then you would need one person to do the “glue”. This was a flour and water mixture that was squirted out of a bottle around the edges of the pastry to seal it at the end of the line. A third person would put the mixture into the pastry, usually with a small scoop. Then two or three people would be required to fold the pastry into the required shape. One person after that would check that the pastry is properly closed and no mixture is hanging out. The next person would apply the egg wash or butter, the next person would add the paprika, sumac or poppy seeds, the next person would place the finished pastries from the line onto trays. Those trays were then placed onto a trolley, usually by a guy on the end. Once the trolleys are full, they are wheeled (by men) to the ovens. The cooked pastries are then cooled down in chillers, are then sent to High Risk for packaging.

There were two lasagna and moussaka lines in Low Risk too, both with a couple of machines involved in the work process.While the containers and layers of both products were mainly assembled by hand, and sauces were levelled out by hand too (with the back of a scoop), a machine would squirt out the hot cheese sauce and second layer of meat sauce.The line here was really fast, I counted 51 lasagnas per minute! The woman next to me once told me that the line speed had doubled within the last three years. The line keeps stopping and starting, sometimes we were waiting around quite a lot while a machine was refilled or we changed the product. Whilst the line was running though, the actual work was very intense.

Abbeydale had the mother of all assembly lines for the samosas. When I was an agency worker, samosas were all still made by hand. Two women, on both sides of the conveyer belt, put the pastry down; then you had to put the glue along one side; then you had someone putting a scoop of the potato mixture onto the pastry; then you had the amazingly skilled samosa folders who could fold a samosa using four folds in about two seconds. Women were stationed at the end of the line to pinch corners down and make sure no mixture was coming out. Apparently there had been complaints about the finished products as the mixture used to escape in the fryer. In early 2019, a samosa machine was introduced that was supposed to cut the number of people working on the line dramatically from up to twenty-five to two. But it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be: the desired quality of the product never materialised and you still apparently needed up to eight people to run the line after the machine was installed.

Low Risk was my favourite department because the lines were slower, the workers were older, there was a bit more breathing space, it was less noisy than other departments – and we would sometimes get an outburst of religious song. A low murmur would turn into a full-on choir, which was nice but reminded me of the chain gangs at the same time! It was corrupted too: when an important visitor would do a factory tour the management would always want the women to sing as a sign of a “happy workforce”. Sickening.

In Low Risk there was always an unscheduled toilet break in the morning between 8-10am too. Women would take it in turns to go, and the Line Leader or another worker would cover you, but this arrangement only seemed to happen in this department. Once when I said I needed the toilet in the packing department, I was told to wait as there was nobody to cover my station. Ten minutes went by. I asked again. Still, I was told to wait a little longer. Finally, after fifteen minutes, I just walked off and they were forced to stop the line. I knew I didn’t have to ask permission to go to the toilet, but the atmosphere is such that it does feel like that.

When women wanted to go to the toilet, they were sometimes denied permission. An older woman with some medical conditions ended up wetting herself twice in the space of six months because the manager, who was also supposedly a GMB union rep(!), kept her waiting too long. Other women complained of not being allowed to go but whenever this was raised with management they just said that workers didn’t need to ask for permission as such and blamed the women themselves for not going when they needed to. Classic gaslighting! Of course, it would have been great if they had felt able to just leave the line, even if they weren’t given cover, but the nature of the work – being “chained” to the line, with other workers relying on you to do your bit, with all your movements surveilled and accounted for – had produced this fucked up dynamic.

In High Care, it was colder and faster. The shorter lines were dedicated to: placing ready-made products such as falafels and koftas into their containers; cleaning up the edges of the lasagnas and moussaka containers; assembling some ready-meals with cooked ingredients such as laksas or cauliflower cheese, where the portions had to be measured out on scales. Because of the faster pace of work, the women working there tended to be younger and less friendly. The Line Leader would usually be stationed at the sealing machine in case something went wrong with it, which happened pretty regularly.

Generally, the thing that people complained about most was the speed of the line and the subsequent quality of the food produced. It was fairly obvious that a line going too fast was going to produce a sub-standard product. You could see it for yourself. Knowing that half of it would be thrown in the bin made people annoyed. Why were we being worked like this if what we made would end in the bin? And why was the management complaining about quality when they were the ones causing it by refusing to slow the line down? It didn’t make any sense. Sometimes, in Low Risk, when the Line Leader increased the speed of the line and if it was running too fast, some brave soul would turn it down when the manager’s back was turned. But generally, the pace of work was outside of your control.

Hierarchies and dependencies

The strict hierarchies within the factories were denoted by what colour cap you wore. But even amongst the same cap colours, there were many gradations. Hygiene workers were probably the bottom of the pile in terms of respect, which is normal for cleaners across society in general, but compounded here because they were usually also Tamil.

The fact that your work was deemed “unskilled” added to your low sense of worth and placed you firmly as an inferior. That mostly women were in this grade cemented a gender hierarchy. These factors were the background against which sexual harassment of women could flourish. The nature of the work process itself encourages such behaviour, through the fact that women working on the assembly lines and who are subject to more control and surveillance by largely male managers puts them at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to experiencing and speaking out against harassment and abuse. When you combine this with a workplace culture of shouting and bullying, you have a perfect storm for sexual harassment, which did occur.

Relationships of dependency were bound up in the reliance on overtime because your direct line manager decided if you would get it or not. Overtime was needed not only to make ends meet, but for a minority of workers, essential to reach the income threshold to bring over a spouse over from India. We can see here how the immigration rules impact upon work-lives. They make you beholden to management: you need to keep them sweet to get the overtime you desperately need, and you need to maintain good relations so they don’t fuck up your payslip. While groups of workers with similar immigration restrictions, such as construction workers in Dubai, have fought back in worse situations, breaking these dependencies is still a big leap for workers to take.

Worker-Organisation at Bakkavor

Soon after I first started there, we started distributing leaflets to workers as a way of sharing information and as a way to incite discussions amongst workers about certain issues. We then started writing a more regular rank and file bulletin, fully translated into Gujarati and Tamil for workers. We pooled the knowledge we had accumulated so far and published the first Unofficial Bakkavor Bulletin, including news from the various sites and different groups of workers.

About a year in, we had come up against a bit of a brick wall. The leaflets and bulletins we had distributed so far hadn’t yet yielded a visible, collective response. We also found it difficult to get information that, aside from our own experiences, wasn’t just based on gossip and rumours that are part-and-parcel of a large workforce. Our general critique of trade unions still stood: that they essentially exist to manage the relationship between labour and capital rather than overcome it. But rather than rely on left-communist dogma, we wanted practical experience within the big unions to see how things actually operated. We had some practical questions: was it possible to instrumentalise the union apparatus to create some space for workers’ self-organisation?

At the start of 2018, there was a whiff of hope in the air. As the leaflets had not born much fruit, we had this new militant guy, and union membership was relatively high for a private sector company (around 45%), I decided to put my name forward as a rep for the first rep elections in eight years. In the subsequent election, I managed to be elected as rep, despite our main (corrupt) shop steward’s attempt to rig multiple votes.

A big problem I identified was workers’ confidence, which was low. This was a biggie and my suggestion was to try and organise meetings after work, advertising them as meetings where no managers would be present so that people could talk freely about their concerns and demands. My idea was to have meetings geared towards certain groups of workers, starting off with women and Hygiene workers – the groups that were most let down after the last pay talks.

I first started with the Hygiene workers. I advertised the meeting as best I could and it was a pretty good turnout. There were around fifteen Hygiene workers who attended, mainly from the Elveden and Abbeydale sites, mainly Tamil guys. I wanted people to participate and asked them what their main problems were and how we can use the health and safety rules against the company to put pressure on them. People participated, but with the language barriers some people dominated the discussion. At the end, for next steps, I asked them to get hold of their job descriptions and some paperwork setting out the cleaning rules they had to abide by, and to share their experiences as they arose on the WhatsApp group. However, even though I did continue to post things and encouraged feedback, none of this was taken up.

I tried again with a meeting for women on the assembly line where I invited two of the former Grunwick strikers. They were also older Gujarati women, who could perhaps better relate to the women in my factory. After a lot of promotion, in my factory at least, very few women came, the bulk of the people actually being male Hygiene workers from the previous meeting. We showed some film footage of the strike and the women spoke about their experiences. There was decent discussion up until a bullying union official started lecturing the workers and taking up all the space.

The meetings allowed workers to come together and to start having discussions about their situation. This had never happened before and opened up the union to people who were not the usual suspects. It also was a rebuttal to all the disgruntled workers who kept repeating that, “the union never does anything.” It was a change of direction and we hoped people could see we were trying to do something different. But with almost no other help or support from the reps in promoting these kinds of meetings, I was already feeling overstretched.

In 2019, the union organised a number of protests outside the factories around our pay negotiations. This had unsettled management, but the thing that really frightened them was the one incident we saw of collective action taken by workers themselves soon afterwards. It happened in the houmous department on the August bank holiday Monday (and probably not coincidentally it happened a couple of weeks after we had distributed our bulletin urging workers to take matters into their own hands). 50 workers had discussed amongst themselves the possibility of not turning up for their day shift as a way of demanding the £1/hr more pay rise. As working Bank Holidays is not compulsory, there was little the management could do about it. At first, they didn’t believe the workers would carry out their threat. But when only a handful turned up for work, they went into full on panic mode. Management were left struggling to cope and get their orders completed. However, the night shift workers, who knew about the plan, came into work instead, limiting the economic impact to the company.
Still, the threat of such never-before-seen insubordination on a collective scale put a poker up management’s arse. They sprung into action, questioning everyone the next day to root out “the leaders”. Their heavy-handed approach caused upset and anger amongst the workers who then said they would do the same thing again the following Monday. At this point, the management totally freaked out and immediately suspended two of the workers whose names had come up during their interrogations. One, a non-union member, didn’t get his job back.The other, who was a union member, did get his job back, but then unfortunately decided to quit. If he had returned to work, it would have restored confidence amongst the workers that they can act together and still remain in the job. Instead, the news of this “strike” and the “sackings” spread amongst the other factories and scared some workers who might have been thinking about going on strike for the union’s pay demand. So, despite the potential it could have unleashed, it wasn’t a great outcome in the end. Still, this group of houmous workers had taken a leap forward. We had finally seen some kind of collectively organised action inside the workplace that had ramped things up and made the management truly fearful.


Any kind of dispute in big workplaces like Bakkavor potentially creates wider repercussions. This is why we chose to focus on Bakkavor as one of the main industrial companies in the area. If workers had managed to behave more independently and bravely, if a critical mass had developed and we’d managed to strike, the message it would have sent to all the low-paid migrant workers in the area would have been extremely important. Across Park Royal and the supermarket chains, news of the strike would have sent a strong signal that workers were no longer prepared to rely on the benevolence of such multinational companies and that they were commanding some self-respect. It would have shone a light on this neglected bit of west London, home to tens of thousands of low paid workers that keep London running. Their potential power inside the supply-chain would have been made visible. Things didn’t work out this time, but that’s the class struggle folks! Better luck next time!

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Angry Workers (@workersangry)

Angry Workers are a political collective involved in encouraging working-class self-organisation. They were formed in and around the Park Royal industrial estate in West London, and now are based between various cities.