A major UK supermarket has pledged to interview migrant agricultural workers on a Scottish fruit farm following claims of unfair working practices by people coming to work in Scotland through a UK Government scheme.
Marks and Spencer (M&S) confirmed it is planning to speak to this year’s migrant workers for one of its strawberry suppliers – Castleton Farm in Aberdeenshire – after concerns about fair pay were raised.
Reports of concerns from Castleton fruit pickers coincided with the publication of a report last month by London-based charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) about the risks of labour exploitation associated with the UK Government’s seasonal agricultural workers scheme pilot.
The study drew on data collected from workers placed by the scheme on 12 unnamed Scottish farms. It found no cases of human trafficking, which has been a problem at some UK farms, and highlighted some good practice.
But the study also claimed to have produced evidence of forced labour indicators, such as degrading conditions, and “excessive dependency on employers”.
With the scheme expanding this year FLEX is now warning that the combination of Brexit – which has ended free movement – and Covid-19 restrictions, will create “the perfect storm” of risk for migrants coming to work in the UK this year.
In recent months The Ferret has received testimony from several migrants who worked on Scottish fruit farms last year. They include two from Castleton Farm – one of Scotland’s largest independent soft fruit farms, with mainstream suppliers including M&S.
The workers said zero hours contracts at Castleton meant they earned a fraction of what they expected.
Their complaints chime with interviews given to the Financial Times last month from workers at the farm who said they were paid for the amount of fruit they picked rather than per hour, a system known as “piece rate”.
Though, as stipulated by law, this was topped up to at least minimum wage, workers claim that pickers who had not worked fast enough were sent back to their caravans for the remainder of a working day, which meant they were not able to make any more money.
The Ferret has also seen an emailed letter signed by eight workers employed by Castleton Farm last year, asking for a guarantee of eight-hour days, or to be transferred to another farm, which they claimed they were not allowed to do leaving them “trapped”.
‘Fairly set’ targets
A reply from the farm states that several workers had been issued with warning letters for poor performance and claims that “we do offer 8 hours of work to all people willing to work hard”.
In a statement to The Ferret, Castleton Farm added that some people, at times, fell short on “fairly set” productivity targets and all had their wages made up to minimum wage.
Last year “workers were arriving without some of the correct information”, it claimed, stating face-to-face interviews will be carried out this year, with information in their workers’ own languages provided.
Though the farm employed over 100 British pickers due to the pandemic, it said that “once the economy reopened, particularly hospitality, these workers returned to other roles”, emphasising the importance of migrant workers.
A spokesperson for the farm stressed: “Whilst the FLEX report identified a risk to exploitation, they found no cases or evidence of any exploitation or illegal practices on any of the 12 farms, including ours.”
Although there were no illegal practices, one man from Belarus raised repeated concerns about short working days at Castleton Farm.
He said his requests to agency Concordia to be moved to another farm were not granted and eventually he was let go due to “poor performance”.
Payslips show that after deductions of £57.40 for caravan accommodation, one week he was left with just under £166.
Concordia says it audits all farms, only works with ones which “uphold our ethical standards”, and allows workers to transfer to a different farm “wherever possible”.
But the Belarusian said he was left feeling unsure of his rights and did not know where to turn.
“The main problem was that we are not allowed to work the whole day and our employer cut our working hours – not our hourly rate – so we weren’t earning,” he added. “And we didn’t know our rights.
“We came to Scotland to work but we can’t save money and help our families if we are only working two to four hours a day.
“If something like this happens to Scottish people, they know how to find justice because it’s their native country. But we didn’t know where to turn.”
Another woman who worked at the farm last year, said the farmer “blamed people for working slowly” rather than admit he had “a poor harvest”.
Videos and photos show workers in poly tunnels flooded due to rain.
Castleton said workers could be sent back to their caravans for “failing to meet minimum wage standards” meaning “their ability to earn will be reduced due to their performance”. It says other workers “regularly earn over £150 a day on an eight-hour shift”.
He also shared a video of his caravan, which showed a broken window above his bed, and black mould. He said he had no water for two months, forcing him to use the “terrible” public toilet during the pandemic.
“No-one tells you the conditions you will be living in before you come,” he said.
He claimed that though he had a contract with agency Pro Force, which should have guaranteed a 40-hour week, this was not upheld on several occasions.
“You could be sent back from the field early,” he said.
“One time I only made about £200 for the whole week. And you can’t work anywhere else or arrange a transfer.
“The top pickers are given the best rows by the supervisors and others are given the edges. Sometimes they will allow those who they prefer to “skip” the worst rows. I was on the edges on the times when I was sent back to my caravan for not picking enough.”
Launched as a two-year pilot in 2019, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS) initially allowed for some 2,500 non-EU migrants to come and work on British farms for up to six months. Yet despite concerns raised, plans to increase numbers to 30,000 across the UK will go ahead.
Lucila Granada, chief executive of FLEX, said: “We are really concerned about the upcoming growing season because this year the pilot will be open to more people.
“As a worker it’s very hard to understand what your rights and entitlements are, and when you put into the mix those who don’t speak the language it becomes even more unclear. There is a very high risk that workers rights will be restricted even further.”
No cases of forced labour were found by researchers in Scotland. “But we showed that the conditions are there,” she added. “To go ahead and put 30,000 workers onto an unsafe route [via the scheme] to do isolated work in the midst of Brexit and Covid is creating the perfect storm in terms of forced labour.”
Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour spokesperson for economy and fair work, said the conditions described by some migrant workers on Scottish farms were “horrifying” and “must end now”.
“Every worker deserves to be treated fairly and paid the real living wage,” she added. “The ambition for Scotland to become a Fair Work Nation must not leave migrant workers behind.
“Leading supermarket chains have a responsibility to make sure their product sourcing has been done ethically.
“Both the UK and Scottish Government should implement the recommendations of the FLEX report, including financial assistance to trade unions to organise and provide advice to seasonal worker visa workers.”
Human rights lawyer Kirsty Thomson, a partner at Just Right Scotland, called for the scheme to be paused until concerns raised by the FLEX report had been fully addressed.
“It’s a system that is ripe for exploitation,” she said. “Workers have very little in terms of rights and even those that they have are not always accessible. But yet the scheme should be paused until concerns can be fully addressed. In fact it is being expanded.
“In my view what needs to happen is for this workforce to be unionised and for someone with clout to be advocating for workers. We need more than just a one-off piece of research.”
End of free movement
Dame Sara Thorton, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, said the report by FLEX “raises concerns that some migrants working in Scotland’s agricultural sector are trapped in debt, struggling to make the minimum wage and are unable to change employers”.
She added: “As freedom of movement between the UK and Europe ends, the government must ensure that visa schemes such as SAWS do not exacerbate vulnerabilities that may be further exploited by unscrupulous employers or organised criminal groups.”
An M&S spokesperson said when asked about its ongoing relationship with Castleton Farm: “We take the welfare of workers in our supply chain extremely seriously.
“We continue to work closely with our supplier and new measures have already been implemented ahead of the next berry season, when we will be conducting in-depth interviews with workers to ensure we gather robust feedback on the improvements.”
A Castleton Farm spokesperson added: “We have supplied the UK’s major supermarkets for over 20 years. As part of this, we are independently audited regularly, which includes an assessment of how we treat our workforce. Workers are randomly selected and interviewed as part of the process.
“Worker welfare is extremely important to us. We adhere to SEDEX Ethical Trading Initiative base code and are a member of Stronger Together. We are also audited by the UK retailers, the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA) and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).”
The FLEX report, “does highlight some inadequacies with the Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme” they added, claiming that it means recruitment is done through an agency. “Hence ourselves and other growers have been actively engaging with the report and Scottish Government to try and overcome these.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson confirmed that a helpline will be in place this year for all migrant agricultural workers.
When the FLEX report was published Scottish rural affairs minister Ben Macpherson said the Scottish Government was “committed” to doing all it could to address this “with the powers that we have”.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The government takes the safety and wellbeing of seasonal workers extremely seriously, with all farms vetted by the licensed scheme operators. Workers should only be placed with farms which adhere to all relevant legislation, pay the National Minimum Wage and provide suitable living conditions.
“All of our scheme operators provide a helpline, enabling workers to report any concerns and seek assistance whenever they need. The operators are licenced by Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, and any issues of mistreatment can be reported to them and will be taken seriously.”
This story was co-published in tandem with the Sunday National
Cover image thanks to iStock/jax10289