The report – Experiences of forced labour in the UK food industry – claimed that migrant workers were threatened or bullied in the workplace. Many suffered racist and sexist abuse, underpinning what the authors described as a: “climate of fear”.
The worst forced labour practice was the "underwork scam", according to the report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This involved recruiting too many workers and then giving them just enough employment to meet their debt to the gangmaster.
“Some employers used fear of dismissal to ensure that workers remained compliant and deferential,” it was claimed.
Productivity targets and workplace surveillance were said to be excessive. “Workers felt they were treated like machines rather than people and given targets that were often impossible to meet,” claimed the report.
But Peter Pickthall, HR director R&R Ice Cream, said the practices described in the report were not representative of the food manufacturing sector.
They may apply to workers in agricultural field operations but not the food manufacturing sector, he said.
Full week’s work
At R&R Ice Cream, Europe’s largest own-label ice cream manufacturer, overseas nationals accounted for between 56 to 67% of the workforce. “The key thing about migrant workers is that they come to work committed to put in a full week’s work,” Pickthall told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
The firm’s migrant workers – mainly from Iraq and Eastern Europe – helped the firm achieve rates of absenteeism and accidents that were much lower than the national average, he said.
A number of migrant workers had been appointed to top roles such as head of group engineering, he added.
Angela Coleshill, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director of competitiveness, said the sector employs about 400,000 people and takes the treatment of its workers very seriously.
“The report seems to relate mainly to the fresh produce part of the food supply chain and the hospitality sector rather than food manufacturing, but we recognise our responsibility to support fair treatment throughout the supply chain and acknowledge problems where they exist,” said Coleshill, who is also the FDF's HR director.
Coleshill was recently appointed to the Board of the Gangmaster’s Licensing Authority, which is responsible for safeguarding the rights of workers within the industry.
“As a trade association [the FDF] representing around 400 companies, we work closely with our members to ensure that they are made aware of the latest legislation aimed at ensuring fair treatment of employees.”
Unite the union urged supermarkets to look more closely at the firms in their supply chain to root out any abuse of migrant workers.
Its national officer for the food sector, Jennie Formby, said: “The fact that these companies will all be supplying supermarkets makes it imperative that senior supermarket executives should scrutinise those firms supplying their chains of stores for abuses.”
But Jack Matthews, former chief executive of Improve, the sector skills council and the National Skills Academy for food and drink, warned that UK food manufacturers were too reliant on migrant labour.
In March, Matthews told the HR Forum, organised by our sister title Food Manufacture: “About 30% of our jobs [in food and drink manufacturing] are filled by migrant workers. In some cases, that rises to the upper 80%s in the fish processing plants along the Humber estuary. We need to address our dependency on migrant workers in food production.”