Worrying accounts of fears for coronavirus risk come out of Banbury meal-kit factory

Distressing descriptions of working conditions inside the Banbury food packing plant, Hello Fresh, have been sent to the Banbury Guardian.

Thursday, 26th March 2020, 4:29 pm
Updated Thursday, 26th March 2020, 4:30 pm
Hello Fresh packing plant in Chalker Way, Banbury where workers have complained of insufficient coronavirus protection. Picture by Google

The reports come from workers on the assembly line inside the factory along with videos and photos of crowds of people in the factory canteen.

In a story on Tuesday we reported an account by a former worker who said social distancing was not being observed, masks were not being worn and conditions existed that appeared to go against all government advice.

Hello Fresh said it was in the process of changing systems but messages to the Banbury Guardian from staff suggest this has not happened.

Inside the Hello Fresh factory. Picture submitted

One person described food packers wiping their noses on their gloves and not changing them, wiping their noses onto gloves and then their clothes and one alleged food dropped on the floor was put into boxes of ingredients bound for customers' homes.

Laurent Guillemain, CEO of Hello Fresh, said the stories given to the paper are directly against company 'personal hygiene requirements which all team members undertake before being allowed to work'.

One worker went public on social media saying: "I was on a production line packing food for online delivery. There was a person behind me. He was doing the same work as me. What I saw next made me angry and upset. He wiped his nose with his hands and his snot was all over his gloves, then he carried on packing the food without changing his gloves.

"Five minutes later someone next to me did the same thing. He wiped his nose and wiped the snot off on his clothes and carried on his work packing food away. This is absolutely disgusting and upsetting."

The packing plant at Hello Fresh. Submitted picture

The worker decided to quit because of the dangers and tried to complain to a higher authority but was told she must leave the building.

Another worker also left quickly, on her first day on the assembly line. "Social Distancing? What social distancing?. Never ever heard of it. It was not a thing. The staff up so close to everyone, people bunching up getting ready, being forced to sign out in a huge group.

"On my line I was one of two English people (out of 16). These people process the food that gets put our table every day for minimum wage. Absolutely no protection, no distancing and certainly no praise from the public. I saw older people, most probably people with health issues and even a pregnant lady.

"Many (workers) were shipped in via an agency from MK, Coventry and Birmingham on a very busy bus. They have no choice - they need the money for food. I felt thoroughly depressed walking in there."

An image from inside the Hello Fresh packing plant

Another said: "I have just been there and it is still so bad. No masks, no gloves. They were doing an induction for new members of staff where they were all piled into a room to have their passports scanned. They were then handed a pair of shoes and told to gather in the canteen before being given a tour of the warehouse. There must have been at least 20-30 people doing this tour. Outside the building there were lots of people in huddles smoking together again not complying with 2m rule. I couldn't see any hand sanitisers in there and we all had to use the same pen to sign in with."

And another said: "It's going to be a coronavirus breeding ground as well as other illnesses. I have never understood why we haven't closed. Even face masks couldn't protect you from everything. It's a mystery how we have snuck under the radar.

"Social distancing has never been enforced since the outbreak they have allowed some people to continue working although they have returned from some other countries affected. Personal hygiene is never adhered to from even using stock off the floor going into boxes for customers."

Mr Guillemain said the company was open to feedback and in general staff were encouraged to speak to a line manager about complaints.

"We are very sorry to hear about these kinds of stories. They are directly against our personal hygiene requirements which all team members undertake before being allowed to work. We can assure you that we actively encourage our employees to report these things and act on them immediately."

Mr Guillemain said the pictures and video sent to the Banbury Guardian and forwarded to the company for comment were 'not up to date' although the video was dated Wednesday.

"They are clearly not in line with the latest standards we have put in place and are further implementing as we speak. As we already mentioned yesterday (in a phone interview) we are increasing and improving our safety measures on a daily basis to ensure employees can conduct their critical work in the best environment possible.

"In terms of health and safety measures implemented on site, we have very strict hygiene practices in place. Gloves are worn and can be replaced at any stage a worker wants to change them. We have - since our first conversation - introduced masks to anybody who asks for one. We have already increased hand washing and hand sanitising measures and continue to actively encourage this throughout the workforce.

"On a separate note, we would like to stress that as per the government, 'it is very unlikely that you can catch coronavirus from food'."

Mr Guilleman said the the small proportion of employees transported in buses are required to fill out a health questionnaire before they board.

"If they feel unwell, were in close contact with a suspected or confirmed case or in a region we classify as high risk, we ask them to stay home and self-isolate for 14 days. We rely on our employees to be open and honest about this in the interest of all their co-workers. The buses are deep cleaned at the end of every day."

He said the company was adding more staff (400) for increased shifts to meet high demand and not to put more people on the floor at once. More production lines would mean workers will be spread out more.

"We are splitting breaks as well as entries and exits and we are expanding recreational space," he said.

A spokesman for Cherwell District Council said: “With regards to the current situation, Cherwell District Council does not presently have the powers to intervene formally. We will however be raising the concerns directly with the business and will also contact their Primary Authority and ask them to make them aware of the complaints being received.”