Exploitation in the UK food trade

New research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals abusive practices endured by migrant worker

Food for thought: migrant workers are especially vulnerable. Credit: Getty Images

Many migrants in the UK food industry are working under threatening and inhumane conditions for little or no pay, according to a report based on in-depth interviews with 62 workers in England and Scotland, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation today.

Experiences of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry, by Sam Scott, Gary Craig and Alistair Geddes, is one of the largest studies revealing what migrant workers actually experience at work. 

Some were timed when taking toilet breaks and given impossible packing and picking targets to meet. A significant proportion of migrants had paid fees to agents to come to the UK and obtain work. Many were unaware of their rights and trapped in debt.

The researchers also found cases of migrants being forced to share cramped accommodation, sometimes with strangers, and being subjected to threats and racist bullying. Some were victims of the "under-work" scam – the practice of deliberately recruiting too many people and then giving workers just enough hours to meet their debt to the gangmaster.

Scott 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 continued government support for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and possible strengthening of its powers. It also presses for ensuring all employers in a supply chain comply with the law on deductions for transport and accommodation and pay the minimum wage. 

The study also calls for an increased focus on how migrant workers can more easily seek legal redress and compensation and improved access to English language provision.

The workers involved in the study were mainly Polish, Chinese, Latvian and Lithuanian, and based in five locations (London, Liverpool, South-West England, Lincolnshire and East-Central Scotland).