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New research finds evidence of forced labour in the UK food industry
A report published today (15 May) finds that some migrants are working under threatening and inhumane conditions for little or no pay, in parts of the UK food industry.
Although incidents of forced labour in the food industry have been reported from time to time, this new report - Experiences of forced labour in the UK food industry - is one of the largest studies revealing what migrant workers actually experience when they are severely exploited at work.
A significant proportion of those interviewed had paid fees to agents to get to the UK and obtain work. Isolated, unaware of their rights and trapped in debt, researchers found cases of migrants being forced to share cramped accommodation (sometimes with strangers), subject to threats and racist bullying, and vulnerable to scams such as 'under-work' – the practice of recruiting too many workers and then giving them just enough work to meet their debt to the gangmaster.
Productivity targets and workplace surveillance were found to be excessive; workers felt they were treated like machines rather than people and given targets that were often impossible to meet. Some workers were timed when taking toilet breaks and given impossible packing and picking targets to meet.
Sam Scott, one of the report’s authors, said: "Most of the migrants we spoke to in this research are in the UK legally, but their employment conditions are far from legal. Withholding payment, illegal deductions from wages and no proper breaks are all regular occurrences."
The report recommends a number of changes to policy:
- continued government support for the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority and possible strengthening of its powers;
- large food retailers/suppliers to increase the monitoring of their supply chains, including: avoiding audits where only employer-selected workers actually give evidence to auditors; contracts to ensure that the minimum wage is always paid; ensuring that employment agencies are not exploiting workers; ensuring that all employers in a supply chain comply with the law on deductions for transport and accommodation;
- an increased focus on how migrant workers can more easily seek legal redress and compensation;
- improved access to English language provision, to help migrant workers improve knowledge of their rights and be able to ask for help and advice.
The full report contains in-depth interviews with 62 migrant workers; some extracts from the interviews about the conditions they experienced are below:
"No, no, they never paid me the full ... If I worked 40 hours, at the end of the month I did not get paid 40 hours … I would see maybe 20 hours, half of the hours that I worked for!"
"After all deductions, we received £30 per week. Some people were earning nothing at all. They even were getting in debt. Farmer was keeping all the money on his personal bank account. I was very worried about that fact. Yes, we received an envelope with a payslip, which stated weekly earnings, but farmer held all the money. If we needed cash, we had to ask farmer. He recorded it and took it off our next wage."
"Let's start, for example, from the physiological needs to use toilet. We could only go twice, or once for five minutes, in eight hours."