Corinavirus - Former food-packing worker 'terrified' for staff 'shoulder-to-shoulder' on Banbury assembly line

A former assembly-line packer at Banbury's Hello Fresh plant says he is 'terrified' for hundreds of staff as the company recruits 400 new workers.

Tuesday, 24th March 2020, 3:47 pm
Updated Wednesday, 25th March 2020, 2:21 pm
The Hello Fresh packaging facility in Chalker Way, Banbury which is recruiting 400 new staff to meet demand for its food boxes. Picture by Google

The person contacted the Banbury Guardian after seeing a story about the recruitment drive. They said packers putting ingredients into meal-kit boxes of 'cook from scratch' meals, to be delivered to homes, worked shoulder to shoulder, had no masks, wore gloves for 2.5 hours at a time, had to take breaks in a canteen all together and use the changing rooms together.

"I don't see how they can change things and with 400 more staff, packers will be closer than ever. There is free movement around the factory - people are going from department to department," they said.

"Everyone goes for a tea break together, everyone goes to the changing rooms together. The factory is working at full capacity filling and transporting around 2,000 boxes a day. Each box is being handled by 15 - 20 people from assembling the box to putting in ingredients and sealing them for transport.

The boxes being assembled by hundreds of staff for transport out of Banbury

"Each eight hour shift has about 100 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder. There are no masks. They work two and a half hours using one pair of gloves and then all go to tea together. There are 100 people in the tea room at any one time.

"There is no distancing and these people are working for minimum wage. Many may be needing to self-isolate but if they make themselves unemployed they won't be able to live. Many are forced to go to work even though they have conditions like asthma," they said.

The former worker said staff were bussed in from places such as Milton Keynes and Birmingham.

"I know former colleagues who work there and this is the current situation. The prospect of another 400 in that factory has to mean increased danger of virus transmission. I am terrified for them," they said.

Laurent Guillemain, UK CEO for Hello Fresh said: "“HelloFresh is playing a crucial role at this challenging time by delivering food directly to customers’ homes. We’ve seen a significant demand on the back of the crisis and we are doing the best we can to provide a critical service to people up and down the country.

"We are a caring employer and the safety of our employees has always been a priority for us and it will continue to be. Our expert Safety and Quality team started preparing for a potential crisis at the very beginning of 2020 before other companies or the government began to adopt additional steps. These measures included health questionnaires to identify risk groups, even stricter hygiene standards than normal and increased sick pay to encourage people to stay at home if they did not feel well or were in contact with a risk case.

"It is generally untrue that employees work 'shoulder-to-shoulder' at our facility. We are providing masks to all employees and encouraging them to regularly change their gloves. We are also exploring further measures based on expert research to further protect in the rare circumstances where minimal distance recommendations cannot be kept.

"Recently, we have made significant changes to our breakout and recreation areas for colleagues to ensure that adequate space is available. This includes improved placement and the removal of some furniture in our canteen area and the creation of additional space for employees to use on breaks.

"As we increase the number of employees, we are correspondingly looking to increase the number of shifts and operating hours to support the additional demand. Moreover, we are creating an additional packing area which prevents the need for our employees to work in close proximity to others," he said.

"The public health situation is evolving dynamically which is why measures are being adapted constantly in close cooperation with the authorities. We warmly welcome and encourage feedback from our employees to support them in their critical work.”

Juliet Keane, spokesperson for Hello Fresh, said that masks for staff would be introduced and shifts and tea breaks were being staggered to address some of the issues of distancing. All employees conduct a health assessment before they start their working day and encourage all employees to flag immediately if they are experiencing any symptoms.

""We will be introducing masks for all our employees as soon as availability will allow it (most likely as of tomorrow - Wednesday - during the day).