The workers employed by Gate Gourmet were mainly of South Asian origin, from families who had come directly to the UK from Punjab in India. At the time of the dispute in 2005, they were a relatively old workforce, mostly in their 50s and 60s, living in the area around Southall, London, where Heathrow Airport was a major source of employment.
They arrived in the 1970s and 1980s as young brides or daughters of migrant families and were typically from a rural farming background. One worker, who came to the UK as a fiancée, described her experience after she got married – in the middle of a cold British winter:
The week after the wedding, he (husband) started talking about it. Why don’t you go to work?” I wanted to work, there was nothing to do at home, there was no one at home. I just had that one room and kitchen to myself, the rest of the house was locked. It was too cold to sit out in the garden. What is there to do all day in one room?
Although educated to secondary level, these women migrants had little English and had to settle for unskilled work, with low pay and prospects - very different from their families’ previous experience in India. Satwinder, a South Asian woman worker recalled:
It was dirty work, cleaning toilets. Everyone used to look at us, you know, like these Asians - we were mostly Asians there - they do ‘cleaning job’. The managers were not nice. Like, they used to say you have not done the job, even when we had, and had signed the paper. Even if we had completed the job, they used to harass us by creating dirt in the toilets, you know what I mean. Just to make it harder for us, because they were men, because they were in a position of authority, they wanted to trouble us. I felt very bad. (…) What kind of job is that? In India, we have people who come to clean our toilets. And here I was, doing this kind of work.
They moved jobs frequently in search of better pay and conditions and looked to the trade unions to support their rights and entitlements. Most of these women worked all their adult lives, as well as doing most of the housework - cleaning, caring for children and cooking.
Conditions at Gate Gourmet
The Gate Gourmet was a company that prepared the meals in those little food trays that you get when you fly on a plane. They had initially been employed by British Airways (BA), and enjoyed their jobs. They were members of the trade union, then called Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU). In the 1990s, BA outsourced the preparation of in-flight meals to Gate Gourmet. By outsourcing, companies can cut the amount they pay to workers, for example, by paying only minimum wages and offering fewer benefits such as pensions, sick pay and holiday pay. This helps companies increase their overall profits.
The workers were now employed by Gate Gourmet rather than by BA. The managers began trying to make changes to the terms and conditions in the workers' employment contracts. They wanted to give the workers less sick pay, less money for working overtime and less time for breaks.
One of the women workers remembered:
…they were trying to squeeze work out of us, like you squeeze blood out of meat. They wanted to change the conditions at work. Like the breaks. It was just a 10 minute break, not even enough to drink a cup of tea properly. Just enough time to go to the toilet, relax for a few minutes. Look at the women today, so many of them have arthritis and pain in their joints and back. That’s what you needed the break for, to stretch yourself, ease your aching muscles.
The temperature where the women worked was kept really low at 3-5 degrees because they handled food, and the conditions were hard. The workers spent all day standing as they prepared food and they packed the food in trays which moved very fast on a conveyer belt.
They began reducing the lunch break, saying, why do you need 30 minutes to eat your lunch? You can do it in 15, increasing the speed at which the belt moved, and where there were earlier three women doing the job, saying let’s try it with two women instead.
But the workers of Gate Gourmet did not accept these changes. They resisted through their trade union, and negotiations about these changes took place between their union and the company managers.
On 10 August 2005, when the workers came back from their morning tea break, they found other workers in their place, doing their job. The company had used an employment agency to find people who were willing to work for even less money and seemed to have replaced the original workers without even telling them! The workers were astounded - where were they supposed to work now? In the presence of their union shop stewards, they assembled in their canteen to discuss what was going on and to protest.
The company said they were not allowed to stay there and warned them to return to work or they would be sacked. In the event, the company sacked over 700 workers during that day and the next day. Later, the Daily Mail found notes from an internal meeting at Gate Gourmet which showed that the managers had been making plans to bring in the agency workers to provoke the women and create a situation where they could be sacked. Gate Gourmet confirmed that these documents were indeed from their meeting, and that such plans had indeed been made, but that they had not implemented these plans.
Other workers were on the side of the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. The baggage handlers who worked for British Airways at Heathrow airport walked out in protest at the way the Gate Gourmet workers had been treated. However, since the Thatcher government had changed the law (in 1982) about when and how workers are allowed to strike, such acts of solidarity – called “secondary picketing” have become illegal. Heathrow airport was closed for 48 hours (10-12 August), but the baggage handlers eventually had to return to work.
The media coverage predominantly focused on the disruption to holiday makers with headlines like ‘We’re fed up’ in The Mirror (Moyes and Pettifer, 2005).
The Trade Union Response
The TGWU initially supported the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. But then the union negotiated a deal with the company which agreed to take back some of the workers on new contracts. But the new contracts gave them less sick leave, less money for overtime and changed the way they worked. The company got everything they had been trying to get the workers to accept all along.
A number of workers were offered the chance to leave their jobs in return for financial compensation - known as voluntary redundancy. Many workers who were not happy with the new terms and conditions decided to leave. Alongside this, the company put together a list of workers who they were not willing to take back including some of the older workers and those with chronic health problems.
They made points – that you could not be sick more than three times in a year. That year, I had this problem in my heel. But this is wrong. You work all this time, and then something can happen to you one year. That’s why they selected me (for compulsory redundancy).
But some 56 women workers who were being offered compensation of between £5000 and £8000 refused to leave quietly. They felt they had been betrayed by their union, and decided to continue their fight.
I have to put up with what everyone at home says to me – that I should have taken the money. But I’m not alone in all this – I am part of a bigger group of women, and we are all in the same boat. But we are fighting for our rights, and so we should! If we don’t fight today, then no one will have their rights in the future. If we don’t do anything, what has happened to us will happen to others.
Things did not go well for these workers. They had brought a case for unfair dismissal to the Employment Tribunal. The tribunal judgement, upheld by a majority verdict, held that by leaving the production line on August 10, the workers were effectively taking part in unofficial strike action, hence they could not claim unfair dismissal. They felt very disillusioned since they had listened to the advice of their union when they had stayed in the canteen.
The workers also felt disillusioned with their union, which had negotiated without consulting the workers. While some of the older workers are struggling to find jobs, others have found a new confidence gained from struggling for their rights. Unlike the Grunwick workers, few people in Britain today remember much about this struggle. One of the women who refused to accept the new Gate Gourmet contract told us how they would like to be remembered:
I would like people to remember that these workers were older, who worked hard and were still thrown on the street by the company and left lying there by the union. As a hard working Asian woman who was treated unfairly, who fought them and managed to get on with her life by getting a better job.