The vast supermarket meat packing factory near the Welsh town of Llanelli is convenient for lorries if not people. Owned by the Irish group Dawn Meats, it processes burgers and other mince products for the big retailers with Tesco and M&S among its customers. As the orders roll in for barbeque season, the finished goods can be on their way from the semi-rural industrial food park near the end of the M4 to the motorway network in minutes. For the town a few miles away, the location of the factory has been more of a mixed blessing. Hundreds of workers are needed for round-the-clock shifts packing burgers and steaks, but low pay, changing demand, and an isolated site have resulted in thousands of agency workers from Poland being shipped in since EU enlargement in 2004. The agency workers are said to make up 30% of the factory workforce, and to be paid less than local permanent staff, employed on poorer terms with no guarantee of work, even though some of them are semi-permanent.
It is this divide in the meat industry, that Unite the Union says is creating growing tension in factories and is threatening race relations in the communities around them.
Some 2,000 Polish people now live in Llanelli, according to estimates from local community leaders, and while many in the town praise their efforts to help the Poles integrate, the area has become fertile territory for the British National Party. The BNP acquired its first community councillor in south Wales when Kevin Edwards won 25% of the vote in a ward near the meat factory. He was joined by a second when a Plaid Cymru community councillor from the area defected to the nationalists in protest at migration in April 2009.
Residents of the rows of modest grey peddle-dashed houses whose traditional employment has been in the declining tin, steel and coal works, have been leafleted by BNP activists in recent months. The BNP's Llanelli Patriot complained of the "massive influx of cheap labour that has taken the jobs and houses of true local people". Although few people on the streets of the town want to talk about it, posts on Llanelli websites echo these fears.
The details of terms and conditions and any tension they cause are disputed. Tesco told us that it took only 4% of the produce the factory made, that the union had not raised any concerns with it in regard to the factory or tensions over it and that it had been reassured by Dawn that allegations of unequal treatment were unfounded.
M&S indicated that it had audited the site intensively in the last year and worked with the company to introduce several improvements including a confidential hotline and confidential surgery for agency and local staff to air problems. The union has recently won recognition at the factory. Unite's deputy general secretary Jack Dromey told us that "progress is now being made tackling real problems of a divided workpalce at Dawn Llaenlli over migrant workers being paid less than local Welsh workers."
Workers and their support groups in town contacted by the Guardian talked of significant recent problems, however.
"Of course people are angry," Agata, one of the Polish workers employed at the meat factory by CSA Recruitment, the agency that supplies it with labour, told us through an interpreter last week. "I feel angry to be doing the same job as everyone else and being paid less."
Agata says that as a middle aged mother who lives quietly she has been welcomed by locals; her argument is not with them. "Llanelli is wonderful". Agency workers are on so called "zero hours contracts" which means they can be required to work from 5pm to 3am and, they allege, be made to stay on for overtime until 6am at the same basic minimum wage rate one day, but laid off without notice the next. Permanent workers have guaranteed work and are paid a premium for overtime.
The Welsh Polish Mutual Association of Llanelli was set up because Polish workers were having so many problems with their agency employment, national insurance numbers, car insurance and housing when they first came. Its chairman is Llanelli born Jeff Hopkins, a former councillor, who now devotes himself to providing grass-roots support. "It happened in 2004 quite suddenly with EU expansion. They flooded in from Poland thanks to the agency and hit the town when no one knew it was going to happen. The truth is local people have difficulty working in factories like these."
At the Polish Centre, an advice bureau in town, 800-900 enquiries about problems presented by Polish workers have been logged on average in recent months. The centre and workers report that more than 200 Polish workers were laid off in the spring without notice, but a few weeks later a further 200-plus new Polish migrants were brought in by the agency.
"It's the problem with today's fresh food production. They want people on command, on standby. It's all market forces but it's putting the clock back," she said.
The Llanelli-based agency CSA Recruitment declined to comment. The Dawn group said that it had been a large employer operating in Carmarthenshire for over 15 years. "As well as employing a large number of permanent staff our business in common with others also engages labour via agencies to assist with seasonal fluctuations in demand." "
"We have a very strong Works Council which represents all our staff and management and is made up of British and non national staff. We also have a recognition agreement in place with Unite and they have not raised any of these issues with us," it said in a statement.
"Our weekly confidential staff surgery system, our multi-lingual induction process, our approach to occupational health and our independent confidential 24 hour manned hotline are, we believe, clear examples of the pro-active and best practice approach we take to the ethical treatment of all staff on site''
M&S told us that currently about 5% of Dawn Llanelli orders were for its shelves.
"We fully understand that the use of agency workers is a real challenge for meat and poultry suppliers, which is why we have been working closely with our whole supply base, including Dawnpac, over the last year to help them work towards this.
M&S told us it was also pioneering an 'ethical model factory' with one of its UK poultry suppliers. The aim is to help suppliers manage temporary and migrant workers in a way that gives all workers access to benefits, equal wages and more secure work and has involved the retailer reviewing its ordering practices to reduce last minute changes.