Workers at Premier Foods’ Hovis bakery in Wigan have launched strike action over accusations the company is increasing its use of agency workers to reduce labour costs “by stealth”.

The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union has buckled at the company’s move to increase its use of agency labour to cover sickness and holiday leave at the Hovis site.

“They are looking to reduce their payroll costs through the use of agency labour,” Ronnie Draper, general secretary at the BFAWU told just-food.

Agency workers are paid around half the regular rate of Premier’s unionised workforce, he added.

According to Draper, Premier originally used agency workers when nobody from the factory floor was available to cover through overtime and the move towards the more frequent use of agency workers represents a “significant shift” to cut workers pay “by stealth”.

In addition, Draper said Premier made 26 of its members redundant and then brought in cheaper agency workers just 48 hours later.

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“They are trying to cut workers wages – it is an inevitable consequence. It is done by stealth. Some of these “as and whens”, as they call them, are coming in on a significantly lower hourly rate,” Draper suggested.

The company is also using its decision to transfer all zero-hour contract employees to full-time contracts as an opportunity to “significantly” cut the hourly rate of pay they are offered, the union claimed.

“They are talking about lowering wages, reducing the costs of labour and undermining negotiated wages and replacing unionised contracted workers with low-wage agency staff,” he said.

For its part, Premier has insisted the use of agency work is a necessary part of its operations.

“The limited use of agency labour to cover seasonal peaks, holiday and sickness absence is an integral part of our operational flexibility that is understood and accepted by all our other sites. It is not, and has never been, our intention to replace full time staff with agency labour at our Wigan bakery,” the company said in a statement.

Premier said the strike would not disrupt supplies of Hovis to customers.

“To avoid any disruption in to our customers during the course of the strike, we will continue to supply our core range of products from across our bakery network. Production will also continue at our Wigan bakery with the support of employees not involved in industrial action.”

Premier Foods has launched a series of measures to reduce production costs and sharpen its focus on efficiency, including the closure of two factories and efforts to reduce complexity in the business.