Cheap food has a cost for migrant and agency workers

The food sold in British supermarkets can be labelled either as ‘local’, ‘organic’, or even ‘fair trade’ when it comes from overseas countries, but no label guarantees that workers who produced, processed and packaged it in the UK enjoyed fair and decent working conditions.

Workers’ exploitation is not to limited far-flung places

Risks of exploitation are highly significant for workers in the food industry. Regular cases of overseas workers’ rights violations are reported in British newspapers. One of the most shocking examples was brought to the public’s attention by the Guardian in June 2014 with a reportage showing that cheap shrimps sold in major supermarkets across the United Kingdom were fed with fish caught by enslaved migrant workers in Thailand[1].

However exploitation and daily mistreatment of workers in farms and food processing factories happen in the UK as well. 1 058 workers were identified as being exploited between April 2013 and March 2014; they were due over £1.7 million of excessive transport charges, and unpaid wages and holiday pay[2]. In 2013 634 potential victims of trafficking for forced labour were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM)[3]. 29 % of these forced labour cases occurred in the food and agriculture sector[4]. These numbers represent only a small share of all actual cases of exploitation – the tip of the iceberg. Even under legal conditions work in the food and agriculture sector is physically demanding and often low-waged.

Natalia and Krzysztof[5] were born in Poland but they’ve been working for several years in a vegetable processing factory in Boston, Lincolnshire. “I am over seven month pregnant, says Natalia, but when I arrive at work, they don’t let me go to the toilet during at least one hour”. Krzysztof carries on: “we have piece rates in the factory but often they don’t tell us how much they pay for each tray. They set the rate once they’ve seen how much we’ve made”. Both agree that managers put unnecessary pressure on workers, shouting for them to work quicker and using CCTV to monitor all their comings and goings. And when workers start complaining too loud, like Krzysztof did, they are told: “here is the door, you can always leave”.

Instead of walking out the door, Krzysztof and Natalia joined a trade union which helped them to defend their rights. They could speak English and were directly employed by their company on permanent contracts. But they know lots of people in more vulnerable employment situations who are too afraid to even talk with a union representative. Agency workers are in particularly precarious position. “They feel uncertain; they could be somewhere one week and somewhere else next week”, explains David Shamma, GMB Regional Organiser in Peterborough. “They just do not enjoy the same employment rights as they would get if they were employed by the company directly”.

Agency work reinforces workers’ precariousness

Agency work is quite widespread in the UK food production sector. Many farmers rely on gangmasters, labour providers and other formal or informal intermediaries to recruit their workforce. 986 licensed labour providers employ circa 500,000 temporary workers in agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering, and associated processing and packaging[6]. This allows them to adapt to seasonality of some types of crops. For every permanent worker in the UK horticulture, another four to five temporary workers are hired during peak season (mostly April-October)[7]. However in the meat and poultry industry around 60 % of the firms relying on agencies employ agency supplied all year round[8]. This workforce management system offers advantages for employers that go beyond dealing with seasonality.

It is a mean of keeping workers under pressure. Agency workers face generally increased pressure and worse working conditions than directly employed workers. David Shamma, GMB Regional Organiser in Peterborough explains how this insecurity can prevent workers from claiming their rights: “They feel uncertain, they could be somewhere one week and somewhere else next week. They just do not enjoy the same employment rights as they would get if they were employed by the company directly.”

In its inquiry into the meat and poultry processing sector the Equality and Human Rights Commission found evidence of widespread poor treatment of agency workers[9]. More than 80 % of consulted workers said that agency workers were treated worse than directly employed workers. They were perceived as getting poorer pay, least desirable jobs and ‘second-class citizens’ treatment. Around one-fifth of interviewed agency workers told about being pushed, kicked or having things thrown at them by line managers; over one-third had experienced or witnessed verbal abuses; and a quarter a poor treatment of pregnant women – sometimes leading to miscarriages or dismissals. A quarter of agency worker interviewees said they had had problems taking and being paid for their annual leave. Some agency workers were also lacking appropriate personal protective equipments – such as gloves – or these were ill fitting, shared or poor quality. One in seven interviewees had also paid their agency to find work or knew someone who had done so.

The above listed practices are unlawful. But other lawful measures lead to a poor treatment of agency workers. Some reported being asked to go to their workplace and then being told they were not needed – having to pay their fare in and out without earning any wage. Some other worked very long hours having opted out of the maximum 48 hours working week[10]. Furthermore agency workers do not benefit from the same enhanced rate as directly employed workers when doing overtime or working weekends or bank holiday and report having shorter or unpaid breaks.

Migrant workers are more likely to be in a vulnerable position in their workplace

In the meat and poultry sector, which employs 88 000 people, 70 per cent of the agency workers are migrant workers – while they represent only one third of the permanent workforce[11]. For migrants, agency work is a way of accessing the UK labour market before being able to secure a more permanent and in-house position. In labour-intensive food production areas – such as the one around the Wash sanctuary which covers part of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk counties – many migrant have been filling job vacancies. Some rural areas which in the past had not witnessed any significant immigration are now home to thousands of foreign-born workers, mainly from the new EU member states[12]. Migrant workers are sought by employers because they are perceived as being reliable, flexible and compliant[13].

David Shamma, Regional Organiser of the GMB Union in the Fens area, underlines the difficulties of contacting a union for migrants: “many people fear that their employers will be unhappy or that they will be sacked. Some migrant workers also tend to be suspicious of ‘indigenous’ people if they’ve had difficulties with British people in the past (…). Employers can exploit the fact that people come from other countries and that they don’t know the language or their rights”. Migrant workers are more likely to be in a vulnerable position either because they don’t know their rights in the UK or how to defend them, or because they might think that harsh working conditions are a price worth paying for wages that allow them to realise personal projects. The language barrier might also restrict them to some particular forms of employment where they do not necessarily need English. Employers know that they are dependent on that kind of work.

In a report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Sam Scott and his colleagues interviewed over 60 migrant workers who reported having been exploited[14]. One of the most common practices they uncovered was debt bondage. Some migrant workers had been required to pay fees before being hired – either to travel to the UK or to secure their access to work. They were expected to reimburse them with their first wages which was no easy task considering their low salary and the fees deducted for accommodation, transportation or equipment. In some cases reimbursing these fees was made harder by the fact that wages were not paid or underpaid, or that workers were purposely kept out of work.

Working conditions on the production sites were also really harsh. Workers were imposed unrealistic productivity targets and faced bullying and constant monitoring. Sometimes their passports and pay slip were being retained. Dismissal threats were used as a disciplinary mean – effective dismissal being carried out when workers became ill or pregnant or refused to work overtime. Undocumented migrant workers were also threatened of denunciation to immigration officers.

Migrant and agency workers’ harsh working conditions relate to a large extent to the price pressure faced by farmers and to the dilution of responsibility along the supply chain. The food production system in the UK is dominated by a small number of supermarkets and category managers. British food producers face a major constraint: the limited amount of available outlets. Around 80 per cent of the UK meat and poultry sector products are bought by supermarkets[15] and similar ratios can be found for other products. Retailers have been pushing prices lower and lower – with strong repercussions along the supply chain and worsening working conditions at the further end of it.

Farming and food processing jobs have been especially impacted by this shift of power. Farmers have seen their margins reduced, many farms have closed and too many among the remaining ones have seeked to reduce their expenses by cutting labour costs. Another sign of food production intensification can be found in an increasing tendency towards using piece rates. The employment of international migrant workers, along with the reliance on labour providers, and the use of piece rates all use workers’ vulnerability to ensure compliance.[16]

Monitoring institutions are strongly needed

The Modern Slavery Bill which should be adopted in the UK before the next general elections in May 2015 could help preventing forced labour, protecting the victims and persecuting prosecutors. But it is unlikely to be the best tool to make sure that migrant workers’ rights are respected. The Bill is “narrowly focused on criminal justice issues, with minimal provision for prevention and the protection of victim”[17]. Furthermore addressing criminal offences should not mean weakening employment law enforcement tools. But while preparing this ambitiously named Modern Slavery Bill the current British government has increased the risk of exploitation for vulnerable workers through a series of so-called “red tape reduction” measures.

Since 2010 it has reduced the resources of the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA)[18] – the body ensuring that labour providers and employers meet the employment standards required by law in agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering, and associated processing and packaging[19]. The GLA has also been incorporated in the Home Office, increasing the risk of diverting it from its monitoring and licensing functions towards organised crime reduction and immigration enforcement[20]. Other British labour inspectorates have seen reductions in their budget and scope. The Health and Safety Executive funding was reduced by 35 % between 2010 and 2014/2015[21] and its proactive inspections by one third[22]. The National Minimum Wage Inspectorate opened only 1615 cases in 2012-2013 against 4773 in 2007-2008[23].

This lack of institutional safeguards is particularly worrying in a country where workers keep being asked for more “flexibility”. The number of zero-hour contracts – which guarantee no minimum hours or pay to workers – increased to reach 1.4 million countrywide. These contracts are used by 45% of all employers in the accommodation and food sector[24]. Four out of five jobs created since the coalition government came to power have been low-paid and low-skilled work – especially in sectors such as food processing where intense competition exerts strong downward pressure on pay and conditions.[25] The recent scrap of the Agricultural Wages Board in October 2013 by the coalition government also contributed to a decrease of income and negotiating power for agricultural workers.

The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have fostered the development of an unsustainable and unfair food production model. The Landworkers’ Alliance – an organisation formed of food, fuel and fibre producers which campaigns for the rights of small producers and a better food system – highlights that CAP direct payment largely support big industrial farms and landowners[26]. The UK national food security is based on cheap importations and DEFRA rural development money is directed towards supporting marketing and processing instead of core production and access to land. Public subsidies have to be redirected towards a more sustainable and respectful production model.

At the European level, one option would be to condition agricultural subsidies to the respect of employment rights for all workers. As a first step towards “social conditionality” criteria, inspections on agricultural workers’ employment conditions could be incorporated within the inspections that are currently carried out under the cross-compliance framework.[27] After a transition period only farmers who comply with this social conditionality would be able to benefit from the European Common Agricultural Policy direct income support. A true social conditionality enshrined in the texts of the CAP would be a strong incentive to achieve social justice and dignity for agricultural workers.

Supermarkets should engage with this issue – not only by sponsoring initiatives such as Stronger Together but also by promoting price and buying policies grounded on social criteria. Trade unions have also a major role to play. They have a presence on the ground and have the capacity to relay workers’ concerns. But their task was made harder since the 1980s and David Cameron’s pledge to make strikes more difficult to organise appears as a step further in the wrong direction[28].

Labour exploitation and trafficking for forced labour have to be tackled at the policy level. But it is essential to remember that agricultural workers’ rights violations are not only the deed of a network of criminals operating in the country. The organisation of the food production system in the UK pushes towards workers’ exploitation; its monitoring and redirection are part of the solution.


[1] Kate Hodal, Chris Kelly and Felicity Lawrence, Revealed: Asian slave labour producing prawns for supermarkets in US, UK, The Guardian, 10 June 2014,

[2] Gangmasters Licensing Authority, Annual Report and Accounts, 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014,

[3] National Crime Agency, United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, National Referral Mechanism Statistics 2013, 20/01/2014.

[4] Stronger Together Workshop, Tackling Hidden Labour Exploitation, 19 June 2014.

[5] Workers’ names have been changed for confidentiality reasons.

[6] Gangmasters Licensing Authority, Annual Report and Accounts, 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014,

[7] Scott, S., 2013. Migrant–Local Hiring Queues in the UK Food Industry. Population, Space and Place, 19(5), p.459‑471,

[8] Equality and Human Rights Commission, Inquiry into recruitment and employment in the meat and poultry processing sector, March 2010.

[9] Idem

[10] In this case they are only entitled to one day off each week and at least 11 hours of rest between two days of work.

[11] Equality and Human Rights Commission, Inquiry into recruitment and employment in the meat and poultry processing sector, op.cit.

[12] Scott, S. and Brindley, P. (2012) ‘New Geographies of Migrant Settlement in the UK’. Geography,
97(1), pp. 29–38

[13] Ben Rogaly, “Intensification of workplace regimes in British horticulture: the role of migrant workers.” Population, Space and Place, 14.6, 2008, pp. 497-510.

[14] Sam Scott et al., Experiences of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 15 May 2012,

[15] Equality and Human Rights Commission, op.cit.

[16] Rogaly, Ben. “Intensification of workplace regimes in British horticulture: the role of migrant workers.” Population, Space and Place 14.6 (2008): 497-510.

[17] FLEX, Parliamentary briefing, July 2014

[18] The GLA was required as part of the 4 year Comprehensive Spending Review to deliver efficiency savings of £460,000 (11 per cent) across the period to 2014-15.

Cf. Gangmasters Licensing Authority, Annual Report and Accounts, 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014, July 2014,

[19] The GLA licenses labour providers and carries on-site inspections.

[20] Caroline Robinson, Preventing Trafficking for Labour Exploitation, Focus of Labour Exploitation (FLEX), March 2014,

[21] PPG on Occupational Safety and Health, 2011, Health and Safety and the Health and Safety Executive, available at

[22] Department for Work and Pensions, 2011, Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone. Available at

[23] Caroline Robinson, op.cit.


[25] UNITE – the Union Submission, Migration Advisory Committee: call for evidence – review of migrant employment in low-skilled work, December 2013.

[26] In the UK, 1,106 landholdings received over £150,000 in direct payments totalling £398,516,669.75 in 2012 Cf. Landworkers’ Alliance,

[27] Jo Hunt, “Making the CAP Fit: Responding to the Exploitation of Migrant Agricultural Workers in the EU”, International Journal of Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations, vol. 30, no 2, 61/01 2014, p. 131‑152.

[28] In its general election manifesto, David Cameron’s party plans to introduce a 50% turnout threshold for strikes, bring in new criminal offences for “illegal picketing”, impose time limits on mandates, and increase the notice period for employers from seven to 14 days.

Cf. Rowena Mason, Unions furious at Tory plan to make it more difficult for workers to strike, The Guardian, 18 July 2014,