Many of us remember the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Inquiry into recruitment and employment in the meat and poultry processing sector back in 2010. The Inquiry highlighted just how poor the conditions for some workers in this industry are, providing concrete examples of discrimination, physical and verbal abuse.
Though appalled at the Inquiry's findings, I hoped something positive might come from them. The report received good coverage in the mainstream press, and it even seemed to get traction beyond the ‘usual suspects' in the CSR and ethical trade arena.
But it seems I was too optimistic. Because last week I was equally horrified by the findings of new research detailing widespread exploitation and abuse in the UK food industry - particularly among low-wage migrant workers.
Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), ‘Experience of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry' is a detailed study - one of the largest of its kind - of experiences of forced labour and exploitation in the food industry. It draws on interviews with 62 migrant workers (mainly Polish, Chinese, Latvian and Lithuania) across five locations. Most workers interviewed were working on farms (many as fruit or vegetable pickers), in food processing and packing, or in ‘minority ethnic catering'.
The report paints a grim picture. Using a set of 19 indicators of forced labour, the study identified 14 forced labour practices in the UK food industry. These range from debt bondage as a result of paying upfront fees to travel to the UK and secure work, threats and bullying; through to non- or under-payment of wages, retaining documents, and tie-ins (eg through accommodation). But what comes out strongly is the human cost of these practices - in particular, the acute sense of powerlessness among the workers, and the absolute and relative poverty that they live in.
"Work is tough, low-paid and insecure; many interviewees barely earned enough to survive. Fear and powerlessness were almost ubiquitous... Although none were actually coerced into work, this insecurity, allied with material deprivation, made it difficult to distinguish between free and unfree employment relationships".
Unlike some reports, it tackles head on the underlying causes of these problems, putting the competitive structure of the food supply chain centre stage. It also highlights the role of cultural drivers - and isolated criminal actions of employers and employment agents.
What can be done?
The authors suggest a range of interventions to help minimise the economic, cultural and criminal drivers behind these practices. Proposing the need for a combination of state and non-state action, they set out recommendations for different actors including government, large food retailers and suppliers, inspectorates, trade unions and voluntary organisations.
Practical recommendations for large food retailers and suppliers include the need for better methods of collecting confidential evidence from employees (ie getting away from ‘staged interviews'); looking at ways to challenge ‘flexible employment' arrangements that keep workers ‘on call'; and providing guidance and advice on identifying and addressing particular exploitative practices.
These issues are firmly on ETI's agenda. We have long been aware of the shortcomings of audits as a way of identifying and addressing exploitative labour practices, and have been exploring different approaches to moving ‘beyond audit' to get a better picture of what is really happening on the ground. As the report notes, it's not just about improving audit interview techniques. It's also about providing guidance on and support around ways of identifying forced labour practices, and looking at using workers' contracts as a way of providing better protection and increased transparency around payments, deductions and lack of certainty around working hours.
Most importantly, however, it's about retailers working in collaboration with trade unions and NGOs to bring about an end to exploitative practices and improve the lives of workers involved in growing, picking, packing and processing our food. Without a joint approach to tackling these issues, I fear I may find myself reading a similar report in two years' time.