Supermarkets, Santa and Slavery

Aimee Pratt

Hundreds of miles from the cocoa farms of South America and the tobacco plantations of Africa, British supermarkets, orderly and polished, open their doors to the public. Down their bright aisles walks the typical British shopper, alert for special deals on their favourite top quality brands. But whilst many shoppers believe in the benefits of buying ‘home-grown’, the label does not separate them from becoming part of a vicious cycle of labour exploitation. Included in the price of third world produce, is an issue which exists far closer to home than some consumers may like to think: Trafficking

Jagjit Singh was a gangmaster who provided agricultural labour to food suppliers of Tesco. His company operated under the name ‘Sapphire Trading’. In 2004, he was accused of systematic exploitation of his workers and was consequently stripped of his gangmaster license from the government regulated Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA). Singh reportedly forced his Polish employees to work in conditions which potentially placed them at injury or death. The migrants worked illegal hours and were paid below the minimum wage. Housed in accommodation deemed dangerous for human habitation, the workers claimed they were terrified to speak out against their relentless boss.

Three years later, forty Bulgarian workers were found labouring in a field. Packing vegetables eventually destined to be loaded onto the lorries of British supermarkets, they claimed they were forced to “live like pigs on scrap” when their gangmaster allegedly withheld their pay for 34 days.

Whilst we may be used to hearing similar stories of workers in developing countries being coerced into labouring under such appalling conditions, it may be a surprise to learn that the examples above in fact took place in the green fields of Britain. With many similar stories now beginning to surface, it is becoming increasingly obvious that severe exploitation is not just characterised by sweatshops.

With the demand for Christmas goods fast approaching, the problem will inevitably worsen with demand. Supermarkets reportedly buy 80% of all freshly grown produce in Britain. Many gangmasters are employed by farming companies, who in turn are sub-contracted to British supermarket chains. As a result of intense price competition between the supermarkets, farming companies are expected to provide fluctuating levels of produce, depending on projected customer demand. Gangmasters are subsequently put under pressure to offer flexible and cheap labour. As a result, naive migrant workers are often found buried at the bottom of the supply chain, facing brutal working and living conditions.

According to a 2003 UK Government Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report the volatile relationship between the supermarkets and their suppliers is a, “significant contributory factor in creating an environment in which illegal activity can take root.” Nevertheless, when confronted with the claim that their battle for profit is contributing to the underworld of migrant labour, British supermarkets conveniently pass the buck. They have been accused of hiding behind a subcontracting barrier. Repeatedly bosses of Asda and Tesco have claimed that whilst they are ‘shocked and appalled’ by stories of exploitation amongst gangmasters, and state they are not accountable, as workers are not directly employed by them. Mark Boleat, chairman of the Association of Labour Providers rightly claims that regardless of who is to blame, supermarkets should be checking their subcontracting chains far more thoroughly than they already do: “Malpractice is generally covered up with subcontracting; it’s known that’s how it is hidden. Retailers should be monitoring them”.

Regardless of who is at the epicentreof the supermarket blame game, new cases are emerging all the time. As recent as a few weeks ago, migrant workers were reportedly found picking spring onions in a Worcestershire field. They were children, aged from as young as 9. Inspectors found welly-boots in the field, estimated to fit the feet of a 5 year old, suggesting that children of an even younger age could have worked there. The GLA claim it was the first time that evidence of child exploitation in the food industry had been identified in Britain.

According to a recent report by the international child protection charity ECPAT, 215 children from 33 different countries were officially identified as having been trafficked into the UK between April 2009 and June 2010. Almost one hundred were brought in specifically under concerns of labour exploitation. In the past two years alone, the British equivalent NSPCC claim that they have experienced over 100 cases of people being trafficked into the UK for ‘slave-labour’. These fresh figures have naturally unearthed concerns surrounding the British governments somewhat indolent efforts to tackle human trafficking. Is Britain, a country so often characterized by its belief in fair play and progressive working conditions slowly slipping back to its 18th century slave trade traditions?

When reading about the experiences of Hsiao-Hung Pai one would certainly be driven to believe so. Pai is the author of the book ‘Chinese Whispers: The Story of Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour’. The book delivers a chilling first-hand account of how hundreds are exploited in the UK in ways unimaginable. Pai writes, “I talk about their struggle: their once in a lifetime decision to migrate for work; their journey in Britain; moved on from job to job to fill the need for temporary seasonal labour; the way they cope with daily exploitation and marginalisation in a country that needs them but doesn’t recognise their rights.” There are currently around 1 million people in the UK estimated to be living this slave-like experience. With 10,000 gangmasters currently operating in the UK, one can picture how the lives of Britain’s invisible migrants can easily slip into rogue hands. Looking to the future Pai asks, “What should Britain do in order to protect and uphold the rights of workers, regardless of their immigration status?”

Although this question is one that should be urgently addressed, the current government funding cuts are expected to halt any progress that is likely to be made. With the GLA facing a 29% cut on resources, investigations into Britain’s greedy gangmasters will be far from few in the coming years.

However, fresh campaigns are surfacing to tackle the exploitation faced by Britain’s silent slaves. Famous faces, such as the actress Juliet Stevenson, combined with charities such as Anti-Slavery International are petitioning against the government’s decision to ignore the EU directive. Currently, their petition has 13,000 signatures.

Despite the future offering limited optimism to Britain’s underworld of migrant labourers, it is hoped that growing pressure from the public raised by this campaign will encourage the government and the supermarket chains to act against this emerging illegal subculture. Well, it is true what Tesco placates, “every little helps”.


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