Saturday, August 22, 2020

Covid-19 and Factory Conditions

Cramped conditions in some factories and in low-paid workers’ homes, spurred by the UK’s desire for cheaply produced food, may have driven infection rates in the sector, according to David Nabarro, a World Health Organization special envoy on Covid-19.

Unions say most of those working in UK meat, poultry and other mass food production plants are foreign migrant workers who share accommodation and transport.

Nabarro, speaking in his capacity as a professor at University College London’s Institute for Global Health, raised the issue of low pay, which may mean employees exposed to the virus feel pressured to keep working. A culture of cheap food was based on driving production costs down – but at a price, he said.

“It may well be that in keeping production costs down, we end up with a situation where the people who work in food processing are under very, very tough working conditions and are paid relatively small amounts of money compared with other roles.

“So one could argue that this is not so much structural issues in society as a consequence of the perpetual pressure to get quality of food up and prices down. And so a part of this may require thinking carefully about how much to pay for particular kinds of food.”

Nabarro said working and living conditions for food factory staff could create a perfect storm for the spread of the coronavirus. “If people are living in very high-occupancy, cramped conditions and they’re sharing transport, that obviously is another way in which transmission is likely. So, if you add it together, the conditions inside the plants seem to contribute to the spread. The conditions of living and travel seem to contribute to spread. And the way in which money is handled if you’ve got to isolate may also contribute to spread.

His comments may be seen to echo criticism of fast fashion for driving a culture of cheap clothing.

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