Workplace Report (January 2015)


Where they survive, workplace canteens keep staff well fed

A Workplace Report survey of 351 workplaces found a significant fall in the proportion of workplaces providing a staff canteen, although a higher proportion of large organisations continue to provide such a facility. There was mixed news on price rises, but overall happiness with the quality of food as well as the portions.

The works canteen has continued to decline in UK workplaces. Less than half (47%) of 351 union reps said their workplace had a canteen. That is down on the 56% of the 254 union representatives responding to a November 2010 survey and well down on earlier surveys when the proportions were 66% in 2000 and 82% 20 years ago in 1995.

The surveys do not necessarily cover the same establishments — many of those surveyed in earlier years may have closed down or merged. Nevertheless there can be little doubt that the employer-subsidised workplace canteen is a less common benefit now than for the previous generation of workers.


Of the 351 responses, 164 respondents indicated they had a canteen. Table 1 shows the breakdown of canteen provision by size of workplace.

Table 1: Size of workplace with canteen

Number of employees Number with canteen % with canteen
0-49 4 6%
50-99 4 9%
100-499 62 53%
500-999 40 82%
1,000-4,999 44 83%
5,000 or more 10 77%

Of these 164, some 68 (41%) were subsidised by the employer and a further four had seen such a subsidy removed in the last five years. The 2010 survey found just over half (52%) of canteens were subsidised.

And facilities can vary on just one site. For example, a rep at Gatwick Airport said: “The workplace is an airport with many different organisations, and there are considerable differences between employers as to what extent they subsidise their workers’ access to the staff canteen. Some workers have subsidies up to 60% but many don’t have any subsidy at all.”

Larger workplaces tend to be more likely to have canteens and the proportion of large workplaces (those with 100 or more workers) with a canteen is up to 95% from 92% in the 2010 survey. It would appear that canteens have closed in smaller workplaces (for those with 50-99 workers down from 27% to just 9%) at a much greater rate than in larger workplaces.

The continuing decline in canteen provision was illustrated by the response from one manufacturing site where “all canteen facilities are being closed as of Jan 2015. Vending machines for drinks and snacks and microwaves will remain.”

Meanwhile, at McVitie’s in Manchester, “The canteen facilities have been removed within the last couple of months. Prior to that there was a breakfast, lunch, evening and nightshift canteen facility with freshly cooked hot food,” a respondent reported.

Provision can be patchy. A rep at the Land Registry said: “Of our 14 office locations ranging from 200-400 staff only one site in Plymouth has a canteen.” A rep in one police force reported that “only one canteen is provided out of 15 locations.”

Improvements in access to canteen facilities were reported. At Koyo Bearings in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, the rep said: “The union through consultation provided workers with a breakfast service and tea time service; prior to this the canteen was only open 12 till 12.45.”


Workplace Report asked about the price of tea, snacks and main meals. From 156 responses, nine said that tea was free; in the remaining responses prices for tea varied widely, from 8p up to as much as £2.00. The average prices are given in table 2 on page 16 and are broken down between subsidised and unsubsidised workplaces and those with a union role and those without, plus those run in-house and those run by contractors.

In the case of tea the price gap between the in-house canteens and those run by contractors is huge at nearly 90%. The gap between tea prices in canteens where the union is involved and where it is not was also marked; the average price is 26% higher in those canteens with no union involvement. Unsurprisingly subsidised canteens are considerably cheaper than those without a subsidy.

Since the 2010 survey the average price of a cup of tea in a canteen has risen by 50%; during the same period inflation as measured by the Retail Prices index (RPI) only rose by 13.9% so a cuppa from a canteen has been getting significantly more expensive in real terms, that is, over and above the RPI inflation rate.

The sharpest rise of all was in the price of a cup of tea in a canteen run by contractors; from 55p in 2010 to £1.59 in 2014, a rise of 189%.

Picking up a snack was cheaper in real terms as they only rose by 9.6%, while main meals had risen almost exactly in line with the RPI, 14.0%.

Table 2: Average prices

All canteens Subsidised canteens Unsubsidised canteens Union role No union role In-house Contractor
Tea 81p 63p 91p 66p 83p 84p £1.59
Snack meal £2.06 £1.84 £2.23 £1.98 £2.11 £2.17 £2.03
Main meal £3.59 £3.23 £3.81 £3.39 £3.64 £3.74 £3.51

Customer satisfaction

Table 3 sets out their views from the 164 respondents with a workplace canteen on the service offered (where a view was expressed by the respondent).

Most respondents thought the quantity of food was acceptable, with 90% saying portions were average or substantial, but on quality only a narrow majority (54%) thought it was excellent or good. The rising prices in canteens no doubt underlie the figures on value for money where only 46% considered their canteen provided excellent or good value for money.

Table 3: Customer satisfaction

a. Portion sizes

Number %
Substantial 29 18%
Average 117 72%
Small 16 10%

b. Food quality

Number %
Food quality
Excellent 21 13%
Good 66 41%
Reasonable 63 39%
Poor 12 7%

c. Value for money

Number %
Excellent 16 10%
Good 58 36%
Reasonable 62 39%
Poor 25 15%

On the downside, the rep at an aerospace company said: “Despite many complaints on food quality, nothing has changed. When the canteen was subsidised, the food and service were of a much higher quality.”

And dissatisfaction with canteen facilities was expressed by reps from further and higher education colleges.

A rep from Greenwich Community College, south London said: “People have long been complaining about the quality/price of food in the canteen but nothing has been done to address the complaints.”

At De Montfort University in Leicester, the rep said “Largely expensive food and drinks, supplied by for-profit private companies (one of which is a Starbucks). Choice is in general not that great. Prices generally go up each year.

“No dedicated staff canteen available (this has disappeared and catering services have been privatised a long time ago), the central lunch facilities are shared by all staff and students.

“No discount or loyalty scheme provided by the employer. In terms of other areas where workers can eat their own food, we are looking at staff rooms, and the existence, available facilities, use and size varies quite a bit from building to building.”

Special diets

Nowadays, vegetarians are well catered for, 85% of respondents said that there was a meal suitable for vegetarians on a daily basis. However, some of the answers may paint a better picture than they warrant; one building society rep said: “I am a vegetarian and while there is always an option if you are willing to have a jacket potato and salad, it isn’t a proper meal like it used to be a year ago. “

The rep added: “Our provision used to be excellent, i.e. fully subsidised, full meals (3 courses, 3 choices, proper veggie option, cooked breakfasts, etc.). But about a year ago it was changed to a snack bar.

“There is a subsidised Starbucks option where the coffee is about £1.50 but we do have totally free tea, coffee and milk in our offices throughout the company which is still good.”

On the issue of provision of meals for those on special diets (such as low fat or gluten free) the responses were not as good: only 37% of canteens provided these on a daily basis, but that was an improvement on the 24% found in 2010.

The provision of meals catering for particular religious or cultural requirements, such as beef or pork-free meals, was also patchy: 38% of respondents said these were available on a daily basis — but again it was an improvement on the 33% in 2010.

At Nestlé UK, both vegetarian meals and meals catering to religious and cultural requirements were available.

However, the respondent said: “The vegetarian options are not very good, also Muslims have limited choice due to the meat not being Halal as yet, on weekends and nights the choices are poorer and lots of employees order takeaways.”

Healthy options

On healthy eating options, only three-quarters (74%) of responses said they were provided. That’s a disappointing fall from the 86% recorded in 2010. Some respondents noted that the switch to contract caterers was directly responsible for this. Nevertheless, some employers provide free fresh fruit to the workforce.

The majority of respondents still found the food in their canteen sufficiently nutritious and balanced (66%), but this was down on the three-quarters reported in 2010.

Shift workers

Recent research has found that shift work can lead to an increased risk of type 2diabetes. Around 700 people a day are diagnosed with diabetes in the UK.

According to Dr Alastair Rankin of the Diabetes UK charity: “The best way to reduce your risk of type 2 is to maintain a healthy weight through regular physical activity and by eating a healthy balanced diet.”

However, only 39 of the canteens catered for shift workers. Even where such provision is made it was not always satisfactory; at Nestlé UK, “on weekends and nights the choices are poorer and lots of employees prefer takeaways”.

At the Unilever, Trafford Park, Manchester tea factory: “The canteen used to cover all shifts. In the last two years this has been reduced to 8am till 6pm. Microwave cookers are available outside of these hours, cutlery and crockery are also available.”

At fertiliser manufacturer GrowHow UK, based at Ince near Chester, the rep said: “Overtime meal chits are provided for shift workers working overtime to obtain takeaway food, the problem is the face value of the chits no longer gets you a meal and a drink. The union are currently in talks with the company about increasing the face value of these chits.”

And for shift workers, Christmas has been cancelled: “Christmas dinner is a sit down meal where places are booked with no takeaway facility so shift workers are not given a Christmas dinner.”

Other eating facilities

In addition to canteens, the survey asked about what other eating facilities were provided in the workplace. Three-quarters of respondents — 262 out of 351 — said there was an area other than a canteen where workers could eat their own food.

In the Royal Parks Agency, the rep said facilities available depended on location: “In our HQ in the Old Police House in Hyde Park there are no kitchens. There are a couple of tea points which have microwave ovens and fridges.

“A couple of offices also have had a fridge installed. Offices out in the Parks themselves generally have a kitchen and somewhere to eat. We no longer have canteens as such though.”

At the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew the rep reported that “depending on where we work some places have facilities”. Staff can use the public restaurants with a 50% discount but this was “too expensive on our wages”.

Facilities provided by employers for workers preparing their own food varied. The most common item was a cooker or microwave, found in 91% of workplaces, followed by a kettle in 83% of workplaces.

In 46% of the workplaces surveyed a food vending machine was provided and in 55% a drinks vending machine was installed. Nine out of 10 workplaces had a fridge which could be used to store staff food and drink.

Some workplaces had other facilities such as a hot water boiler, toasters, water coolers, freezers, dishwasher, or pie warmers.

However, in some workplaces some facilities had been provided by the staff rather than the employer.

At Dover District Council offices in Whitfield, the respondent said: “There are kitchens with kettles, fridges and microwaves and separate seating areas to eat, as well as a small staff room with a drinks vending machine. Most staff have kettles etc. in their offices and generally eat at their desk.”

At Reigate and Banstead Council in Surrey, “there is a staff room which is rarely used. However there are high benches with stools for people to eat near the ‘kitchen’ area and it is accepted that people eat ‘cold’ non smelly food (i.e. fish/curry) at desks”.

And sometimes the question of facilities provoked disagreement. A rep at Bolton Council said: “My employer claims to have eating facilities for employees, however this is actually a public canteen 10 miles away in the main office building.

“As it is open to the public (paying customers) they don’t like people eating their own food there even though the policy is to allow staff to eat their own food in the canteen.

“In my building there is a small kitchen area on each floor and on the 3rd floor is a large kitchen with a small table, however this is claimed by workers on that floor so I have to eat at my desk or in the car between visits/meetings.”


In terms of hygiene, three-quarters (73%) of respondents said the eating areas/facilities were kept clean. However, a very small number (2%) said they were not, while around a quarter (23%) said they were only kept clean sometimes.

In a small number of cases (just 12) there were separate canteens for different groups of employees. The reasons for this varied, including food plants where separate groups of workers have separate canteen facilities to minimise the risks of cross-contamination. And at some military establishments there were separate facilities for military personnel and civilians.

One bus company rep said: “We used to have a good canteen with discounted food, however as the workforce has shrunk over the years, we’ve ended up with basically a kitchen with tables and chairs.”

Meal breaks

A third of workplaces now have flexible breaks — up from a quarter or 24% in the 2010 survey — while those with set breaks have seen them shortened somewhat.

One in 10 workplaces has breaks of less than 30 minutes – up from 8% in 2010. Clearly, very short breaks mean that even when a canteen is provided the workforce will have limited opportunity to use it.

Table 4: Meal breaks

Length of break Number of workplaces %
Under 30 minutes 35 10%
30-45 minutes 132 38%
45 minutes-1 hour 63 18%
Over 1 hour 2 1%
Flexible 117 33%

A respondent from Ontic Engineering and Manufacturing UK said: “Lunch break is 30 mins or 60 mins. A 60-min break should start at 12:30, but there is some informal flexibility — the flexibility is not written into any agreement. A 30-min break can start between 12:30 and 1:30, but again, there is some informal flexibility with some staff starting before 12:30 or finishing after 1:30, which are the formal limits of the lunch break.

“A sandwich van visits the site at 9:30am which many employees use. It provides hot snacks such as bacon rolls, pasties and also sandwiches and cakes.”

At Multi Packaging Solutions Leicester (formerly Chesapeake Corp) a respondent reported: “In all production areas we have continuous running. Many years ago we had a clearly defined 30 minute unpaid main meal break during an 8-hour shift. We negotiated this away for a 7 hour 30 minute working shift with two flexible 15-minute paid breaks. Office workers still work 8 hours per day with a 30-minute unpaid meal break”.

However the notion of flexibility should be treated with caution. In some cases there was a stated break but it was not honoured.

Where provision has been described as flexible, in many cases that means people eating at their desks while continuing to work. In many workplaces this in the norm, but at Mendip District Council in Shepton Mallet the respondent said: “Currently they are trying to get us to stop eating at our desks, this was challenged by staff as it didn’t seem fair that we wouldn’t be able to snack at our desks anymore so it has been relaxed to encouraging us to not eat meals at our desks. Most people still eat their meals at their desks.

Several respondents complained that the employer was failing to make proper provision.

At meat processer Sarval in Doncaster, a rep said: “As a union, we are constantly pushing the company to improve the canteens, which they have done but there is still huge room for improvement. It is an issue which is strongly felt by our members.”

At Annan Academy, the rep reported that “there is a staffroom, but it is a distance away and when you only have half an hour time is short. I tend to eat in my car as it is parked nearer to the building I work in”.

Of the 164 canteens, 55 were run in-house (34%) with the rest run by contractors. Sodexo ran the most with 14 followed by nine by Compass, then five by Aramark, and three each by Baxter Storey and Eurest.

At the National Offender Management Service headquarters at Clive House, the rep reported that “what was once technically a staff restaurant/canteen is now an on-site Costa”.

Only 39 (11%) of the 351 responses indicated any union involvement in the canteen, sharply down on the 23% found in the 2010 survey.

In terms of unionisation, just a third (34%) or 56 of the 164 canteens were unionised, but only one in five or 36 had recognition.

About the survey

Workplace Report contacted trade union representatives from the Labour Research Department’s Payline database of collective agreements. A total of 351 responded across all sectors of the economy. 219 responses came from the public sector (62%), 113 from the private sector (32%) and 18 from not for profit organisations (5%).

The industrial breakdown of the responses was 128 (36%) in local government, 68 (19%) in manufacturing, 53 (15%) in education, 23 (7%) in central government, 13 in both post and communications and finance and business services (so 4% in each industry), 11 (3%) in passenger transport and also in voluntary and membership organisations, nine (3%) in health, seven in retail and distribution (2%), six each in the fire service and media and entertainment (2%), five in energy and water (1%), four in the police service (1%), and just one in construction.

This information is copyright to the Labour Research Department (LRD) and may not be reproduced without the permission of the LRD.