The worker’s death coincided with an outbreak of the novel coronavirus at the factory in Kent, which supplies upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer. Cases of the virus grew from 35 in the third week of November to 70 by the end of the month, according to the union.
GMB has called for the company to offer full pay to anyone taking COVID-related absence, mass testing for staff and to perform a deep clean at the factory. GMB claimed the manufacturer had only agreed to ask staff to wear face masks after being pressured by the union. Food Manufacture is awaiting comment from Bakkavor.
Spread at an alarming rate
GMB organizer Frank Macklin said the virus had spread through the factory at ‘an alarming rate’ in just over four weeks, having only reported a handful of cases before November.
“Sadly, the Bakkavor factory has now suffered a COVID-19 related fatality,” said Macklin. “25% of the workforce has been affected by this outbreak – unfortunately Public Health England does not feel that this is enough to step in.
Requests for factory closure
“GMB has requested the facility close to allow mass testing of employees and a deep clean of the factory. Once this has been done, the factory can re-open with staff returning safe in the knowledge every step has been taken to ensure they are working in the safest possible environment.”
The union has now lodged a formal collective grievance on behalf of its members.
Commenting on the outbreak and the death of the worker, a Bakkavor spokesman said: "At this early point in the investigation there is no evidence that this case was contracted in the workplace.
"We have stringent safety controls in place, we brief colleagues on travelling safely to and from work and stress to all our colleagues to be equally careful outside of work to control the transmission of the virus."
The spokesman said the business had been following PHE guidelines and had a series of robust COVID protocols in place, including an internal track and trace system.
"With this recent rise in cases, we have been re-briefing staff on the workplace controls that need to be followed and also of the importance of taking personal responsibility in following all the COVID guidelines outside the workplace," the spokesman added. "We also have Covid Marshalls in the business that manage adherence to strict workplace procedures and monitor safety for those car sharing, where we issue face masks.
"PHE South East has been and continue to be very supportive of the measures we have taken, and we are working closely with them to determine the next course of action. If this involves whole site testing, we will fully support this."
Meanwhile, the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) has challenged claims food factories could become ‘super spreaders’ of COVID-19 in the run-up to Christmas, according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
The BMPA earlier this year hit back at the idea that meat plants were particular breeding grounds for the virus. It claimed the reason for apparent high rates of infection in such factories was because of increased testing and because workers often hailed from local areas hit hard by the virus themselves.