Tense negotiations between Asda, its meat suppliers and Unite are taking place to decide how to introduce equal pay and conditions for plant workers.

Earlier this month, Asda and Unite announced the retailer would require its UK meat and poultry suppliers to stop paying migrant agency workers less than permanent staff for the same work.

While the majority of Asda's 29 meat suppliers were working to introduce the minimum standards, two in particular were resisting change, said Unite director of organising Sharon Graham.

She said one supplier's response had been "over my dead body", while the other told Asda that if it had to pay agency and permanent staff the same, it would use only agency staff, who are paid less.

"It is shocking," said Graham. "The idea that a business model would dumb down rather than move up gives you some idea of what those companies think they can get away with."

Asda had responded by insisting the supplier's plan was not viable, Graham said: "Asda made it very clear that was not the business plan they expected them to have."

Graham claimed the cost of changing practices in the Asda meat supply chain would be £2.4m and it was currently discussing who should bear these costs. But she insisted the price was minimal. "It is probably the cost of one bogof promotion," she said. "What is important about the figure is how small it is."

Asda told The Grocer that it expected the changes to be in force within 12 months and said it would carry out audits to ensure suppliers were compliant.

Bernard Matthews had already made the change, and Cargill, another of Asda's meat suppliers, had also recently changed its employment practices.

Meat processing plants made headlines two weeks ago when the Equality and Human Rights Commis­sion published the findings of its inquiry into working conditions. It concluded that exploitation and abuse of mainly migrant agency workers was rife, and threatened to name and shame companies unless practices changed.

Read more
Mults and suppliers sign GLA protocol to protect workers (25 March 2010)
Asda equalises pay for direct employees and agency workers (6 March 2010)