Who produced the food that you are eating?

Who produced the food that you are eating? Harsh working conditions for migrant workers in the UK food industry

A blog by Fanny Floremont – researcher from la Confédération Paysanne. This post was initially published on Migrant Voice website and later, on The Landworkers’ Alliance website

The food sold in British supermarkets can be labelled either as ‘local’, ‘organic’, or even ‘fair trade’ when it comes from overseas countries, but no label guarantees that workers who produced, processed and packaged it in the UK enjoyed fair and decent working conditions. Consumers are often unaware of the social costs of low food prices.

Natalia and Krzysztof[1] were born in Poland but they now work in a vegetable processing factory in Boston, Lincolnshire. “I am over seven month pregnant, says Natalia, but when I arrive at work, they don’t let me go to the toilet during at least one hour”. Krzysztof carries on: “we have piece rates in the factory but often they don’t tell us how much they pay for each tray. They set the rate once they’ve seen how much we’ve made”. Both agree that managers put unnecessary pressure on workers, shouting to ask them to work quicker and using CCTV to monitor all their comings and goings. And when workers start complaining too loud, like Krzysztof did, they are told: “here is the door, you can always leave”.

Instead of walking out the door, Krzysztof and Natalia joined a trade union which helped them to defend their rights. They could speak English and were directly employed by their company on permanent contracts. But they know lots of people in more vulnerable employment situations who are too afraid to even talk with a union representative. Agency workers are in particularly precarious position. “They feel uncertain; they could be somewhere one week and somewhere else next week”, explains David Shamma, GMB Regional Organiser in Peterborough. “They just do not enjoy the same employment rights as they would get if they were employed by the company directly”.

Agency work allows employers to adapt to seasonal crops. However in the meat and poultry industry around 60 % of the firms relying on agencies employ agency supplied workers all year round[2]. This reliance on agency workers has become a workforce management system where employers can use workers’ uncertainties regarding their professional future as a compliance tool[3]. Sam Scott – who published a report on forced labour in the food industry, evokes a “climate of fear” where “workers are generally quite fearful of raising a grievance against their employer – for fear of losing their job or not getting work in the future”[4]. Dismissal threats are used as a disciplinary mean.

According to the Association of Labour Providers, approximately 90 per cent of all agency workers in the UK agricultural, horticultural and food processing industry are migrants[5]. In the meat and poultry sector, 70 per cent of agency workers are migrant workers – while they represent only one third of the permanent workforce[6]. For migrants, agencies are a mean of accessing to the UK labour market but work is often physically demanding and low-waged. In its inquiry into the meat and poultry processing sector, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found evidence of widespread poor treatment of agency workers[7]. They were perceived as getting poorer pay, least desirable jobs and ‘second-class citizens’ treatment by most of their colleagues. Around one-fifth of interviewed agency workers told about being pushed, kicked or having things thrown at them by line managers. Over one-third had experienced or witnessed verbal abuses; and a quarter a poor treatment of pregnant women – sometimes leading to miscarriages or dismissals. A quarter said they had had problems taking and being paid for their annual leave. Between April 2013 and March 2014 1 058 workers were identified as being exploited. They were due over £1.7 million of excessive transport charges and unpaid wages and holiday pay[8].

In a report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Sam Scott and his colleagues interviewed over 60 migrant workers who reported having been exploited[9]. One of the most common practices they uncovered was debt bondage. Some migrant workers had been required to pay fees before being hired – either to travel to the UK or to secure their access to work. They were expected to reimburse these fees with their first wages. This was no easy task considering their low salary and the fees deducted for accommodation, transportation or equipment. In some cases reimbursing these fees was made harder by the fact that wages were not paid or underpaid, or that workers were purposely kept out of work. Working conditions on the production sites were also really harsh. Workers were imposed unrealistic productivity targets and faced bullying and constant monitoring. Sometimes their passports and pay slip were being retained.

Migrants’ harsh working conditions relate to a large extent to the British food production model. Too often, farmers and food producers facing pressure from major retailers to lower price do so by cutting labour costs. An extreme flexibility is required from workers. Migrants and agency workers are in the most vulnerable position as they are working in the most uncertain and unstable conditions. Institutional safeguards such as the Gangmasters Licensing Authority are highly needed and their work should stop being undermined by austerity policies and so-called “red-tape reduction” measures.

Fanny is a volunteer at Migrant Voice and a Project Officer for la Confédération Paysanne, a French agricultural union supporting small-scale producers. La Confédération Paysanne has been working together with partner organisations and volunteer project officers to publicise migrant workers’ rights violations in the food and agricultural sector in Europe. To read our articles from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, visit our blog: http://www.agricultures-migrations.org

[1]Workers’ names have been changed for confidentiality reasons.

[2]Equality and Human Rights Commission, Inquiry into recruitment and employment in the meat and poultry processing sector, March 2010. http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/documents/Inquiries/meat_inquiry_report.pdf

[3]Ben Rogaly, “Intensification of workplace regimes in British horticulture: the role of migrant workers.” Population, Space and Place, 14.6, 2008, pp. 497-510.

[4] Sam Scott, “Challenge the climate of fear that workers face within the industry”, http://emi-cfd.com/echanges-partenariats/?p=3967

[5]Association of Labour Providers, Review of migrant employment in low-skilled work, 2013, http://labourproviders.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ALP-Response-to-MAC-Consultation-on-Migrant-Workers-in-low-skilled-employment-131213.pdf

[6]Equality and Human Rights Commission, Idem.

[7]Equality and Human Rights Commission, Idem.

[8] Gangmasters Licensing Authority, Annual Report and Accounts, 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/331163/ARA_2013-14_Web_Version_3_07_07_14.pdf

[9] Sam Scott et al., Experiences of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 15 May 2012, http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/forced-labour-uk-food-industry