WORKERS at a banana factory in Luton are facing the sack if they do not accept new working hours at the end of this month.
Pratt’s Bananas staff on the early shift will have to start as early as 3.30am instead of 6am, with no extra pay or break times.
A two-week consultation has begun but if staff refuse to agree, they allege they will have their contracts terminated and be offered new ones, which will then make them ineligible for redundancy pay.
A male employee, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said: “We were given letters about the possible changes to our hours and they are calling this a consultation period, but we don’t really have any choice because if we disagree with it our contracts will be ended.
“There’s no way I can work from 3.30am, the working conditions are bad enough as it is.”
The factory are the main suppliers for Tesco whose demands for earlier deliveries have prompted the decision to start the working day earlier.
Alan Costello, regional organiser of GMB, the trade union representing Pratt’s workers, said: “We are in talks with managers and the staff affected and are hoping to come to an agreement and resolve these issues.
“The problem we really have is the tight timescale of only two weeks for the consultation, which ends Friday, May 20.”
Mr Costello said that some of the suggestions for compromise include moving staff from different departments so that those who can work the early hours are able to and those that can’t don’t lose their jobs, and possibly introducing additional night time pay.
Pratt’s Bananas, part of the Ethical Trading Initiative ‘Respect for workers worldwide’, hit the headlines in 2007 when employees claimed that managers bullied staff, enforced long working hours with few breaks and made pregnant women lift heavy loads.
Despite agreement in 2008 that GMB would represent staff, workers say little has changed, and the proposals for new working hours are the final straw.
A female employee, who also fears losing her job if she is identified, alleged that more than 20 of her colleagues have suffered miscarriages due to the stressful and dangerous conditions in the factory.
She said she sees small women being made to lift 25 kilo boxes from 8ft heights and if they complain they are shouted and sworn at.
She claimed she was made to work with electrical equipment while standing in a pool of water after the roof leaked.
A third employee said: “I need this job because I have bills to pay. I’m training to be an electrician but the college courses are in the evenings and if I’m starting work at 3.30am I just won’t be able to do it.”
Mr Costello said: “Everyone with problems will be offered individual meetings to discuss their circumstances. I have already met with staff twice and will be speaking to them again during this consultancy period.
“It is possible that workers may be sacked without redundancy pay, but we are nowhere near that stage yet. We are hopeful that it will be resolved before it comes to that.”
Pratt’s Bananas refused to comment when contacted by the Luton News.