Government urged to protect school meals workers

Letter from UNISON and councillors across England comes as private catering companies cut jobs, hours and nutritional standards

Staff serving school meals to pupils

UNISON has joined with a group of councillors from across England to call on the government to protect the jobs of school meals workers.

Like so many other public service workers, these staff have risen to the challenges of the pandemic. During lockdowns they have been on site, preparing meals for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, and preparing – and even delivering – food parcels for children who receive free school meals.

When schools reopened to all children in the autumn, working practices had to completely change to make sure that meals could be served safely. However, the combination of children isolating, parents not feeling schools were really safe and bubbles being sent home has meant that some schools were not serving the numbers of meals that they used to.

This has meant cuts to the service – and with them, cuts to jobs, pay and hours of work.

The letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson and under-secretary of state for children and families Vicky Ford explains that the predominantly female workforce is facing:

  • cuts to hours and income;
  • being forced onto zero-hours contracts, with no guarantee of income over the coming months;
  • being made redundant at a time when unemployment is rising steeply.

At the same time, meals staff are reporting that it is becoming harder to make nutritious meals as menus are being limited, with some private catering companies turning to cheaper ingredients.

Many of the catering suppliers are private companies. In the first lockdown, these continued to be paid by government. Now that these firms are struggling to make profits, they are cutting staff.

When schools were open last term, one in four workers in private catering services felt that they were at risk of redundancy, with a similar number telling UNISON that their hours and therefore their income had been reduced.

In a UNISON survey of school meals staff last December, just 43% of respondents agreed that they felt valued. Yet in an earlier survey, in June 2020, that figure was approximately 90%.

The December survey also revealed that one in five staff are worried that children are not receiving properly nutritional meals due to menu changes.

The letter to ministers states that, since central government is still providing funding for school meals, it is not clear where the money is going if jobs and food standards are being cut.

UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “School meals workers are a well-regarded part of the school community and integral to the smooth running of schools.

“Many pupils and parents do not realise that these staff are treated differently to other parts of the school workforce because they have a different employer to everyone else in the same building.

“We do not want to see this hard-working, predominantly female workforce, which does so much for our children, put into hardship through no fault of its own.”

Read the letter here