From the TUC

Do you know where your food comes from? The shocking reality of #forcedlabour in the UK food industry

15 May 2012, by in Working Life

We rightly ask more questions these days about where our food comes from, what it contains and how it has been farmed. But new research suggests we should be as concerned about people employed to pick, process and cook our food here in the UK.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, new JRF research on forced labour exposes blatant exploitation of migrants working in UK food production, processing and restaurants.

The vast majority of the workers in the study were in the UK legally with the right to work and live here – most were, in fact, EU citizens. Food retailers must do more to monitor and audit their supply chains, and the government needs to ensure that the Gangmasters Licensing Agency is sufficiently resourced and has enough teeth to deal with illegal gangmasters.

Some workers experienced a sort of ‘underwork scam’. They’re paid to come to the UK and to live in tied accommodation with the promise of work from an agent. But the hours they’re promised do not materialise – or at best, just enough to be able to service their debt to the agent. They’re trapped by this debt and by the threat of losing their home if they try to move on. These unscrupulous gangmasters are recruiting more workers than they actually need and making money from the deductions they charge their workers as well as through providing labour.

Others spoke about a whole set of ways that the law is broken by employers and/or employment agencies. This includes:

  • not being paid
  • not being paid the hours owed
  • and not being paid the minimum wage

In one case, wages were kept for safe keeping in the personal bank account of the employer and there were cases where piece work was not made up to the minimum wage.

On reading the report you are left with an impression of a climate of fear being present in many of the workplaces. Some workers were threatened with dismissal if they complained (it was pointed out to them that there were others queuing up to do the work); some were dismissed to avoid paying their wages and one woman was dismissed for being pregnant.

Workers talk about excessive surveillance on production lines including not being given proper toilet breaks and being shouted at. In some cases bullying is of a racist nature and there are photographs of racist graffiti in the report. Workers who lived on site or who had accommodation supplied as part of their job found that their house (or caravan) was overcrowded and of poor quality. One worker described a caravan where five people lived including one person sleeping in the lounge.

This study raises a number of questions, for example:

How prevalent is this experience within the food industry? The majority of employers and labour providers act lawfully and there are many examples of good practice. However, this phenomenon was found at 5 different sites and we have seen worker abuse like this recorded in other studies. So although we may be looking at a problem that is small given the size of the industry as a whole it would be quite wrong to dismiss it as insignificant.

How does food produced or processed using exploited labour enter the supply chain?  Illegal employment agencies and gangmasters operate right at the bottom of the supply chain, undercutting the business of legitimate labour providers. And this food is ends up in our shopping bags.

GUEST POST: Louise Woodruff manages the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Forced Labour Programme. She has also managed work on community engagement in decision making in public services and the role of the frontline councillor. Louise’s background is in education having previously worked on developing widening participation activity at the University of Oxford after starting her career as a science teacher in the comprehensive sector.

5 Responses to Do you know where your food comes from? The shocking reality of #forcedlabour in the UK food industry

  1. JLL
    May 16th 2012, 11:33 am

    Oh really? Last time I checked GLA was largely pulling out of the farming sector because its CEO had concluded that working conditions in primary production “had vastly improved since the GLA’s establishment”.

    He’s been saying for years that most licensed gangmasters are fine.

  2. The Continuing Tale of Migrant Exploitation | ToUChstone blog: A public policy blog from the TUC
    May 16th 2012, 2:45 pm

    […] guest post from Louise Woodruff of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) made for harrowing but unfortunately all too familiar […]

  3. John
    May 16th 2012, 4:49 pm

    A somewhat depressing article Louise, but welcomed nonetheless. Originally from South Lincolnshire I am well aware of gangmasters and the tactics that can be used on foreign worker visitors. I would have thought that we would have progressed much more than we actually have, especially over these past few years. However, bottom line accounting still counts for more than foreign workers rights & conditions living in the uk. [a possible reason for a lack of uk workers doing such work!]. You are quite right, the supply chain need to be made much more responsible, answerable and indeed audited. Likewise, I wish that all these workers had some sort of union body that they could report to; and it should be made illegal to hire any workers who did not belong to this body.

  4. JLL
    May 19th 2012, 1:28 pm

    Well said, John. A (compulsory) workers’ union would be a much, much better mechanism than a bureaucracy of retired, white British police officers.

    Rather disgustingly, only a day after this publication the GLA conducted a joint operation with the UK Borders Agency. A dozen exploited workers were shipped straight off to immigration detention centres after being fingerprinted (!) by the GLA on their way to work.

    Even more worrying is the fact that some of the workers left behind believed the information must have reached the GLA and with it UKBA through advice agencies they had consulted.

    Maybe organisations that support the GLA (including the TUC!) should be a bit more honest with migrant workers about the ‘side effects’ of involving the GLA. To worker-victims, what is described here as the GLA’s “teeth to deal with illegal gangmasters” expresses itself in loss of job, unpaid final wages, loss of home, immigration detention and deportation. Unlike the TUC, many affected workers don’t want a fully-toothed GLA.

  5. JLL
    May 19th 2012, 6:59 pm

    When the ‘White Power Racialist Blog’ (complete with swastika) today celebrates the GLA’s approach to migrant workers you do begin to wonder if that’s really an attitude unions share…