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Exclusive: BT call centre sets up 'food bank' for its own staff

BT Group says the "community pantry", which offers food to those who need it, "shouldn't be confused with a food bank".

The "Communitee pantry" contains dried pasta, instant noodles, cereal and even baby food. Image: Supplied

A food donation point has been set up in a BT call centre for staff to use when their pay won’t stretch to the end of the month. 

Officially called the “Tyneside CommunitEE pantry”, it offers employees of EE – which is owned by BT Group – bags of oats, instant noodles, dried pasta, cereal, and even baby food. It was described as being created for when it’s “those last few days before pay day and you need something for tea”.

Though it was set up by colleagues at the Newcastle call centre as a kind gesture, some have pointed out that it normalises in-work poverty. BT Group, which this year posted annual profits of £1.3billion, is also currently facing possible strike action over pay.

“It’s in recognition that employees aren’t getting paid enough to see the month through,” one employee at the call centre told The Big Issue.

“A lot of people were unhappy that the business is trying to normalise that. It’s a multinational company – it’s shameful that this needs to exist.”

A BT Group spokesperson said the initiative simply offered food items for colleagues to take and then replace, for example if they “don’t have time to visit the supermarket”. They said it “shouldn’t be confused with a food bank.”

BT imposed a flat rate pay rise of £1,500 for every employee in April, which the company says was an 8 per cent pay rise for those on the lowest pay. 

The minimum wage went up on April 1, meaning that for those on the lowest pay, “minimum wage was catching up with them,” said the employee.

Inflation has hit 9.1 per cent, with prices rising at the fastest rate in 40 years, and wages are struggling to keep up.  

Speaking at the cost of living rally in London attended by trade unions from across the country, Andy Kerr, deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union which represents members working for BT, said: “How can it be right when BT, a blue chip company in this country, has food banks in their call centres?”

“This is not food banks to actually give out to the community, this is food banks for their own workers. It’s an absolute disgrace.”

BT is facing possible strike action across its EE, BT and Openreach companies as the CWU has begun balloting its members for industrial action over low pay. Ballot papers were sent to members of the union on June 15, and the result is expected to be announced by the end of the month. 

“This company made £1.3 billion profit last year. They’re giving away £761million to their shareholders. Just a fraction of that is enough to settle this dispute,” Kerr continued. 

CWU general secretary Dave Ward tweeted about the “food bank” in May, soon after the initiative was announced at EE North Tyneside, telling BT: “Instead of asking colleagues to keep each other fed, how about you pay people properly so they can afford to live and eat.”

If the strike goes ahead, it would be the biggest walkout at the company for 35 years. 

The employee told the Big Issue they had voted in favour of strike action, and felt the drastic measure was necessary in the face of falling wages. 

“I’m hoping that we don’t have to go on strike, and I’ve got colleagues that have said that they can’t afford to go on strike. And that’s the point. If you’re paid so poorly that you can’t afford one day’s unpaid leave, there’s something wrong here.”

Reactions to the initiative from other employees have been mixed, and while some praised the sentiment of “pulling together to get through it”, others suggested that it wouldn’t be necessary if employees weren’t struggling. 

Staff at the BT Group call centre can “take what you need, leave what you can” from the table of store cupboard food items. Image: Supplied

One said: “The sentiment here is lovely to see, and I’m glad people are coming together to support each other… but it seems like a literal elephant in the room, a monument to poverty. There are enough staff that are concerned with making their wage last a full month, that it has become necessary to set up a food bank within the office. This isn’t something that should be normalised, or needed.”

Others denied the offerings were for people who were struggling. “This is a community pantry, not a food bank. It is open to everyone that can make use of the items available… cuts down food waste and saves someone a bit of money,” wrote another employee. 

Managers also suggested the pantry could be used by people who had forgotten to bring their bank card to work.

The role of food banks across the UK is increasing, as many report soaring demand for emergency food parcels.

Responding to the images of the food bank at EE North Tyneside, Sabine Goodwin, the Independent Food Aid Network’s coordinator said: “Food banks won’t address poverty in any setting.”

“In-work poverty is growing at a rate of knots but food aid for staff definitely isn’t the answer. As the cost-of-living crisis worsens, employers’ first priority must be to ensure their workers are paid enough to afford food and other essentials.”

The BT spokesperson added: “Some colleagues have set up donation collection points at several offices to pass on donations to local food banks. In addition, at our North Tyneside office, following an idea from frontline colleagues, a small collection of household items is available for colleagues who don’t have time to visit the supermarket or who are working outside of the canteen opening hours. Colleagues then replace the items for others to use and this shouldn’t be confused with a food bank.”

“We’re proud of the proactive and generous actions our colleagues take to support each other and their local communities.”

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