Fairtrade but not fair conditions

Article published: Wednesday, November 2nd 2011

Marks and Spencer are keen to flaunt their fair trade credentials. But is it fair that the company who supply their cakes is undermining new employment laws designed to protect agency workers?

Park Cakes, based in Oldham and Bolton, is one of the largest producers of cakes for M&S, Asda and Sainsburys. Like many employers they use agency workers at busy periods such as Christmas, part of a trend among companies to hire temps instead of recruiting permanent staff. De Poel, a major recruiter of temporary agency labour, reported in last July how some employers took on 21 per cent more agency staff than in the same period last year.

Trade unions and MPs such as John McDonnell have campaigned over many years to obtain equal treatment for agency workers. The result was the Agency Workers Regulations, in force since 1 October this year, which give agency workers the same rights as permanent staff after 12 weeks of employment.

Park Cakes, in common with a number of other companies, see this legislation as a threat and are attempting to undermine it. The company has recruited 30 new permanent staff who are not on the same employment conditions as existing employees. Instead they are on zero hour contracts with no guaranteed hours and on only the minimum statutory terms, with neither overtime payments nor shift allowances. In effect Park Cakes is creating a “two tier” workforce within the factory. Although the terms and conditions of existing workers have been protected for now the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), who represent employees at the company, see this as a direct attack on the terms and conditions of all staff.

Union members at Park Cakes have now voted to go on strike for three days from next Monday 7 November to defend their terms and conditions, viewing the actions of Park Cakes as a test case for all employers who employ agency staff while wishing to avoid the new legislation. Park Cakes is one of the largest employers in Oldham, employing 1,500 people, and until recently was viewed by locals as a workplace with decent pay and conditions.

Unfair contracts

But the response of Park Cakes in creating a two-tier workforce among its permanent staff has outraged John McDonnell and local MPs, including Michael Meacher and Andrew Heyes. John McDonnell has tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the Commons to condemn the company, labeling it “an attempt to drive down pay and conditions and undermine existing trade union agreements.” The company is not alone in trying to evade protections for temps: the Royal Mail have set up their own organisation called Angard Staffing Solutions Ltd with which to employ their 18,000 Christmas staff on the national minimum wage with no regular hours and few conditions.

The Park Cake Bakery

A representative for Park Cake Bakeries was unapologetic, saying: “The company has introduced new contracts for new employees to control costs and remain competitive following the effects of the recession and in order to safeguard existing jobs at its Bolton and Oldham sites.”

National BFAWU president Ian Hodson however challenged the company over their action and congratulated his members in standing up for their terms and conditions, saying “I want to congratulate our members at Park Cake Bolton and Oldham for standing up for themselves and their co-workers and for recognising that what the company has done is not just immoral, but wrong.

“It takes courage to stand up and they have overwhelmingly backed their Trade Union, despite the sackings, threats and pressure put on them by senior managers, who wrote to them to vote ‘no’ and called them to briefings to try and damage the reputation of their representatives by making false allegations and deliberately misrepresenting the Union position.”

Union members at Park Cake Bakeries chose next week to strike as it coincides with the launch of a new cake for Marks and Spencer. They challenge the whole conception of fair trade which Marks and Spencer supposedly espouse when they remind customers on their website: “Remember, every Fairtrade product you buy will help farmers and workers in developing countries to invest in their communities.”

Workers at Park Cake Bakeries are asking the question: is it fair to create a two tier workforce at a time of rising unemployment and declining wages? And don’t the communities of Oldham and Bolton need investment too?

Sheila Hulmes

More: Opinion, Unions and workplace


  1. A great article. It highlights the fundamental weakness of liberal calls for “fair trade” in failing to address underlying labour relations – as well as the hypocrisy and cynicism of big businesses which underpins it.

    Comment by Michael Pooler on November 3, 2011 at 12:48 am
  2. Fair Trade – Fair Enough – Fair Employment seems to be another agenda . . .

    No more cakes from M&S, Sainsburys or Asda then, until this gets resolved.

    Comment by pete fraser on November 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm
  3. Royal Mail has effectively offered zero hours contracts for Christmas casuals for years. Staff were recruited for five 8 hour shifts but could be sent home at any time without pay if the work wasn’t there.

    The creation of Angard has had no effect in this respect.

    As for two tier workforces, that’s nothing new either. People pay the current going rate for all things and that includes labour. Why should an employer pay more than the market rate for labour just because it had to pay a higher at an earlier time?

    If the unions disrupt Park Cakes too much then it might just clear off to eastern Europe, then there’ll be no casual workers at Christmas and a zero-tier workforce at the derelict local factories.

    Park Cakes workers should be very careful.

    Comment by simon on November 3, 2011 at 2:14 pm
  4. Simon,
    Your sentiments on cake sound remarkably like one of Marie Antoinette’s fatuous utterances –

    “Let them eat cakes at two tier prices.”

    Comment by pete fraser on November 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm
  5. One thing is for sure Pete – none of the workers at the cake factory, whatever contracts or rates of pay they are on, will welcome your decision to boycott their cakes.

    Comment by simon on November 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm
  6. The situation that face workers in the developing world where they stuggle to make a living wage is rather different to workers in this country who, at worst, get the minimum wage.

    The comparison is crass.

    Comment by norm on November 11, 2011 at 4:26 pm
  7. Great to see success here http://manchestermule.com/article/park-cake-bakeries-dispute-ends-as-strike-wins-protections-for-temps

    Comment by editor on January 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm
  8. WARNING , insurance company RAC they are not honest (cheaters)

    Comment by Jack on March 16, 2012 at 11:36 am

The comments are closed.