Employment: Rollercoaster ride

Job prospects in meat plants in the current economic climate are about as predictable as the British weather, according to one specialist employment recruitment agency, while another says the meat industry was hit harder by the recent recession than other food manufacturing sectors.

On one specialist food manufacturing website, fewer than 30 jobs, out of nearly 800 advertised, relate to the meat industry. This reflects the fact that, over the past 18 months, many meat plants have made staff redundant rather than taken workers on. And other plants that have avoided closure, redundancies or short-time working have simply battened down the recruitment hatches.

The stagnating jobs markets does not mean employers should ignore new or up-and-coming changes in employment law, however. Any employers seeking to lay off or dismiss staff and any employer who is hiring should be aware of newly- or soon-to-be-introduced employment laws and follow correct recruitment and dismissal procedures, or face potentially expensive claims, according to one employment lawyer. And even though there is not much movement in employment at present, a potential crisis looms on the jobs front in the form of a shortage of skilled labour, says one commentator.

The number employed in processing and preserving meat products in Great Britain, excluding the self-employed, dropped to 136,000 in the first half of 2010, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS); this is some 35,000 less than were in employment in the sector in 1996. Martin Palmer, from MLC Commercial Services, says that, for many years, businesses processing, manufacturing and retail have relied on picking up experienced butchers from shops closing down. "That reservoir of experience, from businesses such as Dewhurst, has kept the wolf from the door for some, but it is trailing off as those people reach retirement. People have been warning of a crisis in recruitment for a number of years now."

Some 18,000 are employed directly by red meat abattoirs, 21,000 in poultry production and 12,000 in bacon and ham production, according to the latest (2007) figures available to Palmer. He says that to cope with the shortage of trained butchers, companies are continuing to employ migrants, many from Eastern Europe, while some ethnic butchers have been training themselves in butchery skills, then employing others and training them too.

Although a large number of traditional butcher's shops have closed in the past few years, this has been more than made up by the opening of an increasing number of farm shop, ethnic butchery businesses and supermarkets, putting just as much pressure on recruitment and the hunt for skilled staff. Employment in supermarkets has gone up from 524,000 in 1990 to well over a million now.

Many meat plants employ migrant workers, who are prepared to do low-skilled work for pay that is less acceptable to many British workers. Although the migrant workforce is relatively stable at the moment, its medium-term future is unclear. Polish workers have been an excellent source since EU borders were opened, although some are now returning to their native countries and more could do the same if the economy swerves further back into recession next year. The coalition government is now looking at tightening up the numbers of immigrants coming into the UK from outside the EU and this could affect the number successfully obtaining visas, and the length of time some are able to stay in the country. Ironically this could be a problem for companies seeking skilled specialists rather than low-paid workers.

Marcus Brazier, a director with b3 recruitment, says that, if immigration laws become too tight, there will be an outcry from employers in need of workers with technical, quality control and product development skills. "There is always a shortage of these type of people with the right qualifications," he says. As companies have gone down the added-value route in search of better margins, rather than sticking to primary fresh meat processing, so the need for better-qualified staff has grown.

The meat industry has been hit harder by the recent recession than other food sectors over the past 18 months, he says. Margins have tightened as supermarkets have engaged in price wars, squeezing suppliers even harder in the process. If firms have not closed they have survived by the laying off staff. Not many are taking on workers.

Age concern

If the Equality Act 2010 (see panel) has made employers review their procedures this year then the removal of the lawful default retirement age of 65, will do the same next year. From October 2011, staff will be entitled to work beyond the age of 65. At present staff can request to continue working beyond 65, but the company can refuse. From next year, however, if a company considers any member of staff over 65 is no longer capable of doing the job they are employed to do, it will have to justify dismissal on the grounds of incapacity or ill health, rather than enforce compulsory retirement.

"As a result of the incoming law we're seeing the large-scale dismissal of employees aged 65 or older by many employers this year, using the current default retirement age as the reason to dismiss while it is available," says Kate Gardner, a partner at law firm Clarke Willmott.

After October 2011 employers will still be able to operate a policy of retirement at 65, but will have to objectively justify it, or it will be deemed to be age discrimination. Despite a successful case to support this policy in Germany, Gardner can see a number of test cases looming. "It's going to be difficult to defend removing employees just because they have hit a certain age," she says.

The new Equality Act 2010

European employment law is constantly evolving and employers should be aware of developments or be liable to a claim for discrimination, unfair dismissal or unfair treatment if proper procedures are not followed.

Employment lawyer Kate Gardner, a partner with Clarke Willmott, a national law firm that includes specialist advisors in the agriculture and red meat processing sectors, says the Equality Act 2010, introduced in October this year, could be a "nightmare" for employers if they do not follow the correct procedures. This incorporates all previous laws relating to discrimination, including age, race, sex, religion, political beliefs, sexual orientation and pregnancy.

"If an employer does not follow the correct procedures, they could have a successful discrimination claim brought against them, and there is no limit on the compensation that can be awarded to the employee if they are successful in such a claim," she says. "This year a UK tribunal ordered an employer to pay a record 3.5m in compensation to the successful claimant in a race discrimination claim."

The new Act includes:l Discrimination by association, which is now given legal status. In this scenario, a member of staff may not actually be disabled, but may be looking after a disabled child or elderly relative. "If the staff member turns up late for work regularly, or appears tired or slow, you may perceive that person to be lazy or not up to the job, and in circumstances where he or she is looking after an elderly or disabled relative any action you take against that person could be discrimination by association unless you take into account their special circumstances," says Gardner.

l Discrimination on the grounds of a person's state of health. Gardner cites the case where a job applicant ticked a box on a form asking about disability, saying he had a minor ankle injury. He then tried to claim 10,000 for disability discrimination when he did not get offered the job. Although the tribunal threw out the claim at an early stage, it still led to extra work and cost for the company concerned. The new Act also prohibits employers from asking would-be employees any questions about their health prior to offering the job, unless physical fitness or certain health attributes, such as the ability to lift heavy loads, are an inherent part of the job.

l Discrimination by perception. For example if, upon offering someone a job, the employer later discovers that person had a period of depression in the past, and then viewed them as disabled, with an ongoing mental illness, they would be discriminating against them by withdrawing the job offer.

l Holiday carry-over. Employers used to be able to specify that holidays could only be taken during the annual leave period, and not allowed to be rolled over into the following leave year the so-called 'use it or lose it' principle. This is no longer the case; holidays can be rolled over by law, in some circumstances.

l Culture dismissal. It is no longer a defence in any discrimination or unfair dismissal hearing for a company to claim that abuse or bullying is part of the culture or normal behaviour of the company.

Case law coming out of Europe and the European Court is shaping the way employers relate to staff, Gardner says. Some employees now have special protection against discrimination for their religious, political or philosophical beliefs. To win a case of discrimination on such grounds or of unfair dismissal if the employee has been with the company for more than a year he or she would have to prove to a tribunal that such beliefs formed their whole way of life. Although the barrier to winning such a case is set relatively high it nevertheless shows the way that the law is going, she adds. Two examples relevant to the meat trade may be a vegetarian applying for a job with a meat company, and someone who insists on wearing religious jewellery. In both cases there could be a potential claim for 'indirect discrimination'. However the employing company might be able to justify its actions in both cases; in the first case if, for example, the job involved eating meat and, in the second, on health and safety grounds.