And the Lord looked down on the people of Shinar and said, “ Come, let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that they will not understand what they say to one another.” Genesis Chapter 11
One of the food factories in Lincolnshire has recently issued this flyer making it clear that No English is Required. I was asked whether this is discriminatory? “Against who?” was my response. The person asking the question then realised how daft their question was. If anything the flyer is the opposite of discriminatory in that it welcomes a diverse work force into well paid processing roles where on the whole very little language of any kind is required to fulfil the task.
Indeed this was recognised with great wisdom by the Judge in PF Franco vs Fyffes where a Portugese national claimed indirect discrimination because his colleagues spoke Polish:
‘.. to allow people who share a mother tongue to communicate in it is generally likely to lead to clearer communication and efficient management, and no sensible employer would try to suggest that two Polish workers should not speak in Polish between themselves. Of course it is quite different when someone who does not speak that language is also party to the conversation.’
Fyffes were able to defend themselves because they had a clear policy of instructing employees to be considerate towards others that did not share the same language.
Equally it is perfectly reasonable that employers insist that a specific language is needed because of a legitimate business need. Recently there was a furore of outrage on social media when a local shop advertised a job for a Polish speaker; as it was a Polish supermarket and most of its customers have Polish as a first language the business need is clear and there is no obvious discrimination.
Of course language can pose some practical problems but as most of us can translate quite quickly thanks to the mobile phone and Google these can usually be surmounted quite quickly. Perhaps the one that employees need to take the most care over are health and safety notices and be aware of the primary language of each employee.
However, I do feel the flyer issued by this employer illustrates a significant problem. Employment in the food and farming industries has been Euro-centric. Whilst understandable I ask that every employer consider the following: About 7.7% of all UK residents are not born within the UK and come from outside the European Union; about 3.6% of the UK population was born outside the UK but within the European Union. Even the flags shown on the flyer (assuming they are the correct flags), Latvia, Romania, Russia, Lithuania and Bulgaria represent about 0.5% of the total population. In times where such matters are particularly sensitive we have a white European bias in the food and farming industry that may match the region, but does not match the country and is possibly a weakness of the industry. Indeed it is a considerable weakness of an industry reliant upon part time or seasonal workers that are employed via agencies as the agencies themselves are often European dominated (I personally know exceptions in the Indian diaspora but even they have been shrewd enough to integrate European nationals).
Employers also need to be mindful of the British, or perhaps more specifically in the following two examples the English:
In 2007 I had discussions with several employees that had the same grievance with two different employers: In each case they had, at that time, been excluded from better paid and more lucrative night shifts because the employee wished to have lines of production where everyone spoke Polish. I advised each one to follow their employers’ grievance procedure and if this did not work they could refer to a solicitor to explore the validity of their grievance. They chose not to. But is this acceptable employer behaviour?
I have in my scrap book articles with farmers regularly quoted over the last twenty years, “The English don’t want to work for us” or “The English don’t work as hard.” To put a label on anyone’s ability by nationality is downright stupid. I once, rather unprofessionally, took issue with a local farmer who said this and retorted, “ So you’re telling me your son and mine will not work hard because they are English.” Both of us have hard working sons and he immediately understood my point.
Finally I have one significant issue, I have sat inside a Spalding School and listened to senior staff state to listening parents that local children and their parents have no aspirations beyond working in the local food factories. This attitude is appalling and insulting. The local food industry provides excellent opportunities and the food and farming industries are areas youngsters can aspire to. Indeed, in terms of social mobility the ability to both earn good money and advance your prospects within the industry are great. And if you wish to improve your chances learning another language may hold you in good stead.