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In conversation with… Martijn Mellema, operational manager and Jaap Alders, HR manager at T. Boer & zn

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Involvement in the times of coronavirus: “A sense of brothers in arms”

T. Boer & zn has specialised in the slaughter and processing of calves since 1885. Since 1995, the company from Nieuwerkerk a/d IJssel has been part of the VanDrie Group. For HR manager Jaap Alders and operational manager Martijn Mellema of T. Boer & zn, 2020 was certainly a year to remember, as the pandemic meant that they had to take even more important choices than usual. “This was not always easy,” says Alders, ”but it was also a time when we grew closer together as an organisation.”

On 12 March 2020, the Netherlands went into lockdown. Many companies had to close down, sales markets disappeared and borders were closed. What measures did you take immediately after the outbreak?

Alders: “Like the rest of the Netherlands, we didn't really know what was coming. As a food processor, we were included amongst the 'crucial professions' and were fortunately allowed to continue our activities. A safe working environment is always our highest priority, so it’s not surprising that we quickly took measures. For example, we kept a distance of one-and-a-half metres and took employees’ temperature upon entering – first via the ear, later with a forehead thermometer. Office staff worked from home as much as possible. Everyone reacted quickly; our own people, but also the employment agencies we work with took their responsibility.”

Mellema: “In addition to the practical measures mentioned by Jaap, the VanDrie Group’s subsidiaries immediately sought contact with each other. In the first weeks, we met virtually with a crisis team each day to keep the situation manageable. We drew up a joint protocol and further developed it at a detailed level for each location. For example, all of our branches invested in some form of air treatment, albeit in different systems, so we can properly compare them. In this way, we worked together to ensure that we could continue to produce and that the measures put in place were adhered to as far as possible.”

We drew up a joint protocol and further developed it at a detailed level for each location.

It soon became clear that the situation wouldn't just go away. How did you deal with that? 

Mellema: “We further expanded our measures. We checked our staff for symptoms on entry by means of questionnaires. We appointed coronavirus supervisors and ensured through butterflying (irregular breaks) that there were as few simultaneous movements of staff in the building as possible. Even the minibuses belonging to employment agencies, which brought our hired-in workers to and from our main location, drove half-empty and our employees sat in a so-called draughtboard’ arrangement [Editor’s note: think of them as pieces on a draughtboard]. The NVWA farm managers and the Animal Sector Quality Inspection (Kwaliteitskeuring Dierlijke Sector, KDS) staff, who both supervise the slaughter line, already had their own entrance and accommodation area. That way, contact with our staff was kept to a minimum.”

Alders: “From the second wave onwards, we set up our own testing facility in consultation with the Municipal Health Service (GGD). We provided all the supplies, protocols and qualified personnel ourselves, such as a BIG-registered healthcare provider. This allowed us to preventively test all our employees and, in case of an indication or positive test, to immediately screen the work environment. Whenever there was an infection, we carried out additional source investigation and contact tracing ourselves, in addition to the regular source investigation and contact tracing by the GGD. This actually formed an additional control measure on top of all the measures we had already implemented.”

How important is communication in such a situation?

Mellema: “It's essential. Where possible, we communicate in eight languages. We inform all our employees by means of a weekly letter, a separate coronavirus update, messages on the screens in our canteens and a weekly production meeting with managers.”

Alders: “In addition, our focus was on setting up a responsible working environment and continuously repeating the rules in order to keep awareness high. You can influence a lot by implementing measures, but ultimately you have to rely on the discipline of the people themselves. We also were in regular contact with external bodies such as the safety region, the regional GGD, the Social Affairs and Employment Inspectorate, Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA), Central Organisation for the Meat Industry (COV) and the Occupational Health and Safety Service.”

In May 2020, several slaughterhouses in the Netherlands were closed down due to coronavirus outbreaks among the staff. In the media, the foreign temporary employees mainly took the blame for this. What did this news do to you? 

Mellema: “The possibility of closure also created pressure within our organisation. As T. Boer & zn, we are open to criticism, but we did not recognise ourselves in the picture presented. We know that there are cowboys among temporary employment agencies in the Netherlands and that things go wrong when migrant workers are hired. As the VanDrie Group, we always take our responsibility. And not just during a pandemic; we always take good care of our people.”

Alders: “The term 'migrant worker' gives me a nasty feeling; it has a negative connotation. We’re actually talking about hired-in workers and we don’t treat them any differently from our own staff. They work under the same collective labour agreement (CAO), build up their pensions under the same pension scheme and receive the same training courses, company clothing and staff amenities. Most of our hired-in employees have settled in the Netherlands and have their own accommodation. Only a small proportion reside in housing provided by the employment agencies. We’ve carried out additional audits on the housing of the temporary employment agencies ourselves and have been pleasantly surprised. The quality of the housing is such that many students would envy it for its space and facilities.”

Prevention and control measures have helped, but the deciding factor was our employees themselves.

2020 was a year we won’t forget in a hurry. What lessons have you learned?

Mellema: “We’ve tried with great conviction to create the safest possible working environment for everyone. We’ve sometimes gone quite far with regard to certain measures and have also failed on occasion, but it has to remain workable. For example, with the knowledge I have now, I would have gone to a translation agency sooner so that all communication was immediately available in all languages.”

Alders: “In retrospect, I would have liked to have acted more proactively. I’ll take that into account in the future. Despite the difficult moments, I look back on a special period. Prevention and control measures have helped, but the deciding factor was our employees themselves. When you see how we as an organisation have grown closer together, including in my collaboration with Martijn, that’s really very special. There was so much engagement within the company; a sense of brothers in arms.