A rally has been held outside an Ilkeston school to protest against catering supervisor cutbacks.
The protest, led by union GMB on Tuesday, December 4, saw concerned catering staff, parents and councillors gather outside Field House Infant and Nursery School, in Lower Whitworth Road.
They were voicing concerns about Derbyshire County Council’s plans to reduce contractual hours for nearly 1,000 school catering supervisors – sometimes referred to as “dinner ladies” by eight per cent.
This would result in staff currently working 37 hours a week earning around £97 less each month; and those working 30 hours would earn almost £80 less.
Some members of staff will not have their hours reduced.
The authority says it has proposed the reductions in order to keep pace with private firms and due to the rising costs of produce – which has also seen the cost of school meals rise.
GMB representatives and current county catering service staff say that the county council has “gagged” its employees, advising that they do not speak to the media about the ongoing situation.
One employee said they would fear for their job if they spoke out.
The authority has denied the allegation.
It also says that it has invested in new kitchen equipment so that less time is needed to prepare and serve meals.
The council also says that hours will not be reduced at schools whose meals reduce between April 2019 and April 2020, and that without any cutbacks, the service would make a loss.
Speaking outside the school, parent Melissa Lewis, who lives in Ilkeston, said that she feared “the little things” could get missed if hours are reduced – like her four-year-old daughter Aoife’s milk allergy.
She said: “We haven’t had any issues here, but at other schools there have been problems, and it can lead to weeks of her being ill, throwing up and diarrhea.”
Six-year-old Willian, from Ilkeston, said that he is “really sad” about the proposals.
“They come and play with us sometimes,” he says.
His mother, Sainne, said that “dinner ladies” also provide other support, sometimes stepping in to help kids who are overwhelmed by all the noise and activity of lunchtime.
“It isn’t just about food” she says.
“They are really important for the kids and make sure everybody is included.”
Opposition leader on the county council, Cllr Anne Western, was among the attendees, she said: “Staff are already working up to the limit to serve food to the children. It is another example of Conservatives trying to force austerity cuts onto the hardest-working and lowest-paid, and at the same time potentially making children suffer as well.”
Fellow Labour county councillor, Jim Coyle, speaking outside the Ilkeston school, said: “School meals have never been more important than they are today, and even in this area, there are children whose only meal is a school meal, and we have families relying on foodbanks.”
In October, it was revealed that school catering staff who do not accept a reduced hours contract will have their employment terminated by February 18, 2019.
“Offers of re-engagement” were served to all staff who had not yet accepted the new contracts on November 19.
Lesley Waudby, senior organiser for GMB in the Midlands, also present at today’s protest, handing out leaflets to parents, grandparents and guardians arriving to pick up their children.
She said: “They (the county council) want to cut hours by eight per cent and say that it will not have an impact on the quality of meals.
“They will not say how this will improve the service, and they believe staff will work harder still instead.
“We have asked how staff can be expected to deliver the best service for the community under the new contract, but up until now they have not engaged with us.
“The system is only running due to the goodwill of staff and now it (the county council) is looking to exploit that further.”
GMB is not the only union which has sought to fight on behalf of the affected school catering supervisors.
UNISON has also pledged to fight the proposals.
The unions called the plans “worrying” and “another kick in the teeth” for a workforce which is largely female and are among the lowest paid out of the thousands employed by the county council.
They claim that some members of staff have been reduced to tears at the proposals and may have to turn to foodbanks for help.
Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Erewash, Catherine Atkinson, spoke at the protest, she said: “For DCC to advise staff not to speak is a disgrace, you shouldn’t gag people who are doing their best for our children.
“This could have a serious impact on staff and the children. These meals are important for their wellbeing – for some it may be their only hot meal each day.”
A spokesperson for the county council said: “We highly value our school catering service and our staff who work hard and produce high quality meals.
“The school meals business is a highly competitive one and in order to preserve our excellent service we have to continually look at how we can compete.
“If we don’t, schools can choose other suppliers and in other parts of the country this has resulted in local authorities deciding not to run a school meals service at all.
“The council remains committed to the catering service and in recent years invested in equipment in our kitchens so that less time is needed to prepare, serve and clear school meals.
“This means that we can produce the meals in a slightly shorter amount of time.
“If we don’t cut our costs then our school catering service is forecast to make a loss, which the council cannot sustain.
“We have delayed the start of these changes from February to April 2019 and have said to our employees that we won’t alter their hours if meal numbers reduce in their schools from April 2019 to April 2020.
“We have held regular meetings with the trade unions to keep them up to date with our plans, with the latest meeting last week.”