5 March 1999

Retail pressure brings illegal labour on farm

Its Fairtrade Fortnight.

What better time to point

out that farmers and farm

workers in the UK often face

the same problems as

producers in the developing

world, writes Johann Tasker

THEY struck in the dead of night. Under the cover of darkness, 24 officers from the governments benefits agency raided W &#42 Knights and Sons – one of the biggest vegetable processing plants in the country.

Knights employs immigrant workers, often from central and eastern Europe, who pack vegetables for some of the countrys biggest supermarkets. Fraud squad officials had long suspected that some of the 300-or-so employees were working illegally.

The benefits officers stormed the factory without warning, questioned about 100 workers and arrested four women found hiding in the toilets. The women, who were taken away for questioning by immigration officers, later admitted to arriving in the UK illegally from Lithuania.

"Basically they entered the country by telling lies," says a Home Office spokesman.

Similar scenarios have been played across the country. Since the fraud squad swooped on Knights Norfolk factory last November, raids on other farms and factories have netted about 80 illegal immigrants and saved £500,000 in false benefit claims.

The supermarkets supplied by companies like Knights demand quality vegetables on a massive scale. Factories and farmers can win contracts worth £ hundreds of thousands by meeting exact standards, guaranteeing regular supplies and delivering quality produce on time.

Knights declined to comment on the raid. But employees working conditions are all too often forgotten when big profits are at stake, says Don Pollard, chairman of the Rural Allied Agricultural Workers Union.

"Supermarkets dont always question who produces the goods and at what price," he says. "Theyre doing it more in developing countries but not here."

Mr Pollard is calling for a national register of gangmasters – the people who organise casual labour to harvest or process fruit and vegetables.

Supermarkets are putting so much price-pressure on suppliers to meet exacting standards that farmers are having to cut costs and are sometimes forced to cut corners, he claims.

Other campaigners point out that the big four retail chains adhere to certain standards when buying produce from abroad but have yet to guarantee the rights of workers who pack their vegetables in the UK.

John Lampitt, NFU council member and chairman of the World Farmers Network, chaired a conference on ethical trading in agriculture at the start of Fairtrade Fortnight which began last week.

Delegates to the conference, which included UK producers, farmers from developing countries and one supermarket representative, were urged to consider responsible buying practices.

"You cant have an equal relationship if one of the partners is more powerful than the other," says Mr Lampitt.

Meanwhile, Sainsbury, Safeway and Tesco have all signed up to the government-backed Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a scheme launched last year to encourage businesses to improve the lives of poor working people in the developing world.

The ETI code of practice for goods obtained from the developing world was backed by a £500,000 grant approved by Clare Short, the International Development Secretary.

"Much of the business community now accepts the need for codes of conduct, which guarantee minimum labour and environmental standards," she said at the launch.

The fair trade organisation Traidcraft now wants those standards extended to cover the UK.

"An ethical stance adopted for one group of suppliers cannot be switched off or discarded with another group," Philip Angier, Traidcrafts managing director, told FARMERS WEEKLY. "Any business which tries to operate that kind of double standard will inevitably be caught out by its customers."

But not yet, it seems. Despite all the arrests in the nine months since Operation Gangmaster was launched, the headlines have been few and far between and no one has been prosecuted.

"Were pursuing a number of cases," says a MAFF spokeswoman. "And were hoping to make an announcement soon. But painstaking operations take time."

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Hard labour over here…

MARTIN, a 20-year-old student from Slovakia, spent six months in East Anglia last year, picking and packing the sort of vegetables seen on every UK supermarket shelf.

Martin didnt work for W &#42 Knights, but his experience was one familiar to many farm workers. He frequently worked 11-hour days often for seven days a week.

"Its the sort of work that destroys your mind," says Martin, who earned much of his money at the end of a conveyor belt in a factory picking dirt from potatoes.

A government scheme allows 10,000 overseas students like Martin into the country every year. But he wont be coming back.

"If you dont go to work all week, its not very good money," he says. "For me once is enough."

Fair deal over there…

The low wages earned by many African tea pickers often mean poor housing, poor nutrition, poor health and poor education. But Charles Kibriti in Tanzania has boosted his income by selling his tea to Teadirect, a company which guarantees a minimum price.

By dealing direct, Teadirect also cushions its producers against fluctuating world markets. It also develops stable, long-term relationships with its suppliers which benefit farmers and their workers.

"Fair trade gives us an additional income, greater power as a whole, and real changes in our living standards," said Mr Kibriti.

Teadirect, which was launched last September, has already outperformed many leading brands on taste and quality. Oxfam claims the worlds tea workers would receive an extra £1.9 billion a year if all the tea sold in the UK was bought on similar terms.