Bitter harvest: how exploitation and abuse stalks migrant workers on UK farms

migrant workers
Although conditions are improving, many migrants harvesting our fruit and vegetables face exploitation
Migrant workers are vital for meeting the UK's demand for year-round fruit and vegetables. But despite improvements since the Morecambe Bay tragedy, allegations of poor conditions and abuse in the horticulture sector persist. Andrew Wasley reports

'There's no justice, there's discrimination... people are treated like cattle, not human beings, I never expected it could be like this,' Irena Jaysenka says, before breaking down into a flood of tears. Irena's a migrant worker from Lithuania who until recently was employed in the UK's horticulture sector. Like thousands of others – from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and beyond – she left her homeland in order to earn a living harvesting British fruit and vegetables. But Irena says her experience – and that of others – has been marred by exploitation and harsh working conditions.

She became unemployed after being dismissed – unfairly and without warning, she says – from her job packing tomatoes for a company supplying UK supermarkets. She'd been away and upon her return was told by the agency that employed her that there was no more work available. She managed to find a job picking strawberries at another farm but was sacked, she claims, after taking time off to attend a union meeting. 'I didn't encounter these problems at all in Lithuania in my whole working life,' she says, sobbing again.

In the seven years since the Morecambe Bay tragedy, which saw more than twenty Chinese workers drown whilst harvesting cockles, conditions for migrant workers employed in the UK's agricultural and food sectors have had a spotlight shone on them like never before. The deaths led to the introduction of the Gangmasters Licensing Act and the establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) to regulate labour providers across the food processing, packing, agricultural, horticultural, forestry and shellfish gathering sectors. The GLA aims to ensure workers receive a minimum wage, adequete accomodation, safe transport, contracts and decent working conditions.

The tough stance of the agency and its high profile operations – it uncovered more than 800 workers being exploited, prosecuted a dozen companies and revoked the licences of over 30 gangmasters in one recent 12 month period – combined with an industry-wide drive to clean up its act is widely believed to have curtailed many of the worst abuses that would have been common a decade ago. Back then, according to one industry source, some of the UK's major horticultural growing regions – Lincolnshire, West Sussex, Kent – were more like 'the wild west, with criminals and gangsters running the show and everybody turning a blind eye'.
But an Ecologist investigation has uncovered fresh allegations that working conditions for some migrant workers employed in Britain's fields, greenhouses and packing plants remain poor, with exploitative practices continuing. Additionally, there are concerns that funding cuts could reduce the GLA's operational ability – the organisation itself acknowledges it faces 'a major challenge' to continue its work with the prospect of fewer resources.

The ‘line of death’

'In the beginning it was fine,' says Irena, describing her time working in the Kent packhouse boxing up tomatoes. 'Then they brought in a computerised system for weighing the tomatoes... weigh, check, pack, weigh, check pack... we had to do 3-4 punnets in a minute. If you had three splits [of tomato packaging] in a day you were out. Everything had to look perfect – if not you had a problem.'

Irena describes how there would be fourteen people in a line, working from crates of tomatoes weighing 15-20 kilogrammes, and that they would not be allowed to talk. Most days she worked between 8 and 9 hours, with one half hour break; her longest shift was 14 hours. 'Line number two, that was known as the line of death,' she says. 'There was a Lithuanian supervisor and you'd be put with her to be dismissed.' Despite being employed at the same packhouse for more than two years, packing 'thousands of punnets in a day' Irena – whose son lives in London; her husband remains overseas – says she was sacked after returning from a trip abroad and being told by the agency employing her that 'there's no more work.'

She was offered no possibility of recourse with no right of reply or appeal process. She believes that her activities for a trade union played a role in the agency's decision to dismiss her, especially as a number of grievances had recently been made, heightening tensions.

Irena found work at another Kent farm supplying fruit and vegetables to supermarkets but says treatment of the migrant – mostly Polish, Bulgarian and Latvian – workers was even worse. She started work harvesting strawberries but was switched to picking vegetables after developing problems in her fingers. Irena was paid the minimum wage – £5.93 – and charged £32 per week for accomodation in a caravan, sharing with four others. She worked six days a week.

She claims that workers at the farm were sacked daily if supervisors thought they were not productive enough: 'The agency would calculate what everyone [in the team] had picked, then the least performer would be sacked,' she says. 'They'd be eight people in a plastic tunnel when you'd go for a break but by the time you get back four could have been sent back to the caravans if work was not up to scratch.'

Additionally, Irena says, workers were expected to walk between different fields – sometimes considerable distances, taking 20 minutes or longer – but the time spent doing so would be unpaid, with the agency deducting the total 'transit' time from wages. 'There would be a climate of fear... I was dismissed because I came to a union meeting,' she says.

'Systematic' exploitation

Campaigners believe that experiences such as Irena's are far from unique. The Unite union recently launched a major campaign to force horticultural companies to employ workers on a more permanent basis, phase out casualised labour, and allow unions greater access to workplaces. Industry representatives have branded the demands 'unrealistic' because of the seasonal nature of production and the demands of modern supply chains.

In an opening salvo earlier this year, Unite accused Thanet Earth – one of Britain's largest salad producers supplying Tesco, Asda and Marks and Spencer – of operating 'sweatshop labour' conditions at its vast Kent greenhouse complex. Although a subsequent GLA inquiry largely cleared the employment agencies supplying Thanet of any wrongdoing – in two cases no evidence of abuses was found, in a third case, non compliance with some GLA standards was discovered – Unite says problems persist, stating that some workers have no access to appropriate grievance prodecures. The union claims at least 70 grievances submitted by migrant workers have yet to be resolved.

Dave Weeks, Unite regional officer, said: ‘It is Unite's belief that these workers deserve at least the basic protection of access to a grievance and disciplinary procedure and the positive right to be represented by a trade union. We will continue to put this case to the employers on site and to their customers, the Ethical Trading Initiative and others.'
The union now plans to roll out its campaign to other horticultural suppliers across the UK, where it believes exploitative practices are 'rife'.

The Ecologist has learnt that at least two other major UK suppliers of fruit and vegetables are now the subject of allegations over poor conditions for migrant workers. At one large fruit farm in the South East, former employees – and a gangmaster – have alleged that migrant workers are being 'systematically' exploited, including claims of daily dismissals for 'not performing well enough', bullying, and ongoing problems with workers’ pay.

And a former supervisor at a sizable salad producer, also in the South East, has described living and working conditions for some, mainly Polish and Bulgarian, workers as 'dreadful'. According to the supervisor, some migrants, especially those just arriving for a season's employment, are temporarily accomodated on a holiday park in caravans about to be scrapped for being 'too run down for tourists.'

'There would sometimes be eight or ten workers squeezed into a truck [caravan] designed for only four...', the supervisor said. 'And they are dirty, some without proper heating or beds. Sometimes [workers] would complain of having to share rooms and being kept up at night by other migrants drinking or having sex.' These workers had more than £30 deducted from their wages each week to pay for 'living in this squalor,' he claimed. He cited previous cases of casual workers spending the summer months 'living on the beach' to avoid incurring accomodation fees for substandard caravans.  

The supervisor also alleged that health and safety procedures were 'virtually non-existant' at peak harvesting periods at the firm's salad farms, with a number of accidents reportedly 'covered up' and pickers regularly complaining of suffering skin problems after harvesting plants without gloves or other protective gear. They blame the reactions on pesticides or other chemicals applied during cultivation.

Similar complaints were made by workers at Thanet: an unpublished dossier compiled by Unite notes that workers claim to have suffered rashes and skin complaints arising from work in a tomato-cultivating greenhouse – one worker cited this as a reason given by his agency for his dismissal – whilst others had reportedly signed a petition relating to an alleged lack of provision of drinking water in greenhouses. Thanet Earth declined to comment on specific claims. 

Supermarket pressure

Pressure from major food retailers on horticultural suppliers to provide – at short notice, and around the clock – large volumes of vegetables or fruit is at least in part to blame for ongoing problems, say campaigners. Many suppliers rely on a highly flexible, disposable workforce in order to meet the demands of the 'just in time' ordering system now universally adopted by the large supermarkets.

Growers say it’s unrealistic for them to switch from using casual, migrant labour because they frequently require workers for no more than six or eight months of the year and therefore need flexibility. ‘There’s no realistic way a sizable supplier [in this sector] can have all of its workforce on permanent contracts; can you imagine, they’d be paying for a third of the year where very few workers are even needed,’ one farm manager told the Ecologist.

‘We cannot move to a more permanent employment model and stay in business. Thanks to seasonal demand, weather forecasts and events such as sporting fixtures, our requirement for labour fluctuates to such an extent that it is impossible to predict how many people we need on site further than 24 hours in advance. To permanently employ more workers than we already do would be economic suicide. Every business in our industry works this way too,’ Thanet Earth said in an earlier statement.

Growers and industry bodies maintain that recent years have seen improvements in conditions for migrant workers. They point to apparent success stories such as G’s Marketing in Cambridgshire – one of the UK’s largest suppliers of salad and vegetables and one of the biggest employers of migrant workers in the horticultural sector. The company, part of the Shropshire Group, which supplies lettuces, beetroots, celery, leeks and onions to Britain’s supermarkets, has won accolades from within the horticulture sector for its treatment – and unique facilities – for up to 4,000 migrant workers it employs each year.

‘The Shropshire Group has built an entire village for its staff, complete with social club, football pitches… it’s exemplary,’ the owner of one horticultural company said. ‘Since the GLA licensing system came in we’re seeing fewer examples of bad practice. Even in major hubs we’ve seen improvements. There’s still some problems with migrant workers coming out of the big cities such as Manchester but the situation has improved.’

Rob Orme, Chief Executive of Concordia, a charity which has been supplying students to work on British farms since 1943, said he believes the industry has cleaned up massively in recent years. ‘I’d like to think that the problems have gone away and that things are getting better,’ he said.

David Camp, spokesman for the Association of Labour Providers (ALP) said that following the high profile scandals that rocked the sector early in the last decade, all parties – farmers, processors, the labour providers, retailers – have been increasingly working together to tackle the problem . 'There's been a significant improvement for migrant workers receiving their rights in accordance with the law', he said. ‘We’ve seen a multi-stakeholder approach… the supermarkets want to do the right thing and reduce reputational risk.’

Camp acknowledges that problems still persist however: ‘What you see is jobs being advertised in native languages. This can be an entrepreneur or a gang controlled operation. “We have work in…” they advertise through Gumtree or migrant workers sites. This is for a service provided, they pay to travel over, take them to the door of the labour provider, they know nothing of their backgrounds,’ Camp said. He also said recent years had seen a switch from gangmasters being predominantly British to being foreign nationals: 'If you look at the licenses being revoked it's people from their own communities.'

'Factories in the fields'

The GLA adopts a similar stance – pointing out recent successes but admitting there's still work to do: 'There's still plenty of it [exploitation] out there... you have a situation where no-one wants to work in agriculture and there's large numbers of unskilled workers here,' a senior figure told the Ecologist.

Figures on the precise number of migrant workers operating in the UK are hard to pinpoint, largely because of the transient nature of the sectors involved, but recent research indicated that more than 80 per cent of all peak season agricultural workers are migrants. In 2009, the UK Border Agency estimated that at least 90,000 migrant workers had been active in the previous fours years within the agriculture industry, although the total is believed to be significantly higher as workers recruited by gangmasters and employment agencies were not included. Illegal migrants – some of who work within the sector – were also not accounted for.

Between April 2010 and March 2011 the GLA uncovered more than 800 workers being exploited across the UK, prosecuted twelve companies and revoked the licences of 33 gangmasters, according to the organisations' latest annual report. And a number of major cases are forthcoming, including the prosecution of more than a dozen farmers in the dairy sector who are accused of using unlicensed labour. Arrests also recently followed a major operation into people trafficking in the North West.

But the agency faces a difficult period as spending cuts begin to bite. It has been hit by a number of funding reductions, including the slashing of funds for a network of community intelligence operations set up in cooperation with local councils. The GLA's most recent annual report notes that it 'faces a major challenge in seeking to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable workers with the prospect of fewer resources'.

Campaigners point to recent criminal cases as evidence of ongoing problems in the sector – and why the GLA's work is so vital: earlier this year, Northampton Crown Court heard allegations that Eastern European workers picking leeks for several major supermarket chains ‘were treated like slaves’, with workers ‘intimidated, threatened and beaten’ by gangmasters, and many workers housed in ‘squalor.’

Donna Simpson, a researcher with the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London, spent several months living and working with migrant farm workers as part of a Phd study into the horticulture sector, Salad, Sweat and Status. Her research uncovered a wide variety of experiences for migrants – some positive and some negative – and she is cautious about drawing simplistic conclusions which paint the entire system as exploitative: 'There are some farms and horticultural employers that clearly do value their seasonal workforce and make great efforts to retain them hence the provision of good accomodation and social activities,' she said.

Despite this, Simpson said no-one should be in any doubt that problems do exist, or that the work in question is physically tough: ‘Having experienced three months of harvesting lettuce myself, I can honestly say that it was only by doing this work that I appreciated and understood the intensity of it. There are too many notions of the rural idyll and romanticism about physical work. The current work regimes in horticulture make injured robots out of people in an environment that is industrial in its scale of production. We have factories in the fields and small islands of workers living in caravans.’

Some names have been changed

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