In April 2023, the BBC aired an episode of ‘Inside the Factory’ devoted to the production of Jaffa Cakes at McVitie’s factory in Stockport. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer. Gregg Wallace beams at production workers who told him how the factory makes 1.4 billion Jaffa Cakes a year, and footage shot in 2020 was also patched in about marmalade tasting in Cumbria and the picking and squeezing of oranges near sunny seaside Jaffa in Palestine (well, they call it Israel in the programme).
Gregg marvels at the length of the Stockport factory conveyor belts and the amount of flour, chocolate, and orange gloop that is dripped and dropped into place. He follows a batch from first mixing to late loading. This and that aspect of the production process is, as Gregg declares over and over again, “fantastic!” And indeed, it is incredible that automation, through technological advances under capitalism, has reduced the amount of labour time necessary to come up with such a lovely sweet snack.
However, you will not be surprised to hear that there is another side of the story that Gregg does not talk about on air. Last year, nearly a third of the jobs at the factory were under threat, with fears that the Stockport factory, which is the only production site for Jaffa Cakes along with many other biscuit lines, would go the way of other sites around the country. There was a protracted GMB strike in the Cumbria McVitie’s site last year, which was not mentioned in the programme, and in Aintree near Liverpool.
The Stockport factory workers were being defended, if that is the right word, by USDAW, who promised that they would engage in ‘consultation’ to reduce the impact of redundancies, and local MP Navendu Mishra of Labour, once a Momentum star, appeared in a protest alongside Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.
I spoke to a worker on the production line who did get a chance to talk to Gregg Wallace for the programme, and he gave me the transcript of a scene that was, it was claimed, shot during the programme. I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this, but I spoke to the worker, whom I will here call ‘Sohrab’ to protect his identity, and he gave some background on the clip of transcript.
Sohrab told me about his resentment that he is confined to other ‘biscuit’ lines and not allowed access to the Jaffa Cake facilities. The discussion with Gregg started well but included material that would not fit with the narrative that the ‘Inside the Factory’ team wanted. The transcript begins with Gregg asking for more detail about life in the factory.
Wallace: “Sohrab, all this mixing and baking—it’s a real oven in here, isn’t it, mate? But lovely smells”.
Sohrab: “Er, yes, when I came to work here, I did think I would get to know more about the secret of this tasty commodity.”
Wallace: “Tasty what, mate?”
Sohrab: “A commodity is a mysterious thing, produced for sale and exchanged on the market.”
Wallace: “Blimey, mate, that is fantastic!”
Sohrab: “But I must say that I was a bit disappointed to discover that I was actually working six hours a day for myself, for my wages, and then another two hours for Murat Ulker.”
Wallace: “What, you’ve lost me there; you work for this guy; who is he?”
Sohrab: “He owns this place, and I sell my labour power to him so that the two hours of my time that I work for him give him his surplus value, which he can then realise as profit when the lorry goes out the factory gates and the biscuits are sold.”
Wallace: “You’ve been scoffing too much of this lovely chocolate” [scowls and mutters to the producer that they should find someone else to talk to]
Sohrab: “Can we talk about the McVitie factory closures and redundancies here that will enable Murat Ulker to make even more profit?”
The transcript ends there, but Sohrab told me that McVities is not the cuddly little family firm conjured up in the logo, and neither is it the technological paradise depicted in ‘Inside the Factory’. In fact, it is owned by another company, Pladis, which in turn is owned by Yildiz Holding, which in turn is owned by lucky Murat Ulker, who is currently the richest man in Turkey.
Sohrab is keen to unionise the workforce and trying to find alternatives to USDAW, an outfit that, he claims, functions effectively like a company union, and while he told me he found the BBC programme “mesmerising, he wanted it to go a little deeper into the production process. He wanted it to explore how the extraction of surplus value operates on a global scale, including in colonial settler regimes like Israel, in which you can already see, in the programme itself, imported labour from Asia being used to replace Palestinian workers. And they still won’t let him inside the Jaffa Cakes production line, which, Sohrab says, really takes the biscuit.
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