Sam Scott: Challenge the climate of fear that workers face within the industry

Sam Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Gloucestershire. He carried out two researches on forced labour for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In this interview, he comes back to his findings after interviewing over 60 migrant workers in the United Kingdom (UK) food industry.

What kind of forced labour practices did you uncover in the UK food industry?

There were a large number of practices associated with exploitation. Some of those practices on their own might have been enough to be classified as forced labour, while some other times you needed a number of practices together to do so. Commonly workers were being incredibly fearful of their employer, not necessarily because of physical violence but there was this climate of fear within the workplace. We also had cases of non-payment of wages or underpayment of wages. Outside of employment but linked to employment we were told that the accommodation provided by labour providers was often substandard – with large numbers of people sleeping in one room or in a particular house. People were being charged a considerable amount of money for this substandard accommodation and therefore were not having much money to move on at the end of the working week. There were a number of other issues to do with exploitation, for example workers being asked to turn up to work and then when they arrived being told that no work is available or only a couple of hours. It was not necessarily the kind of direct traditional notion of slavery but a more modern form of exploitation that when being extreme might classify as modern slavery or forced labour.

Could you tell us more about the reasons leading to these practices?

There were cases of individual employers or labour providers acting in a criminal way who in whatever circumstances would have exploited their workers. But another explanation that we found relates to the economic system within which the food industry operates. That’s more complex and a bit more controversial. It has to do with the various pressures to keep costs low that are placed on farmers and food processors. Those pressures come from I guess ultimately consumers but also from the big supermarkets and the big category managers. These big suppliers place pressure on smaller producers and sometimes those pressures lead to workers not having the paying conditions they should have by law.

Why are migrant workers more likely to suffer from labour exploitation?

One big thing was the language issue. Migrants who spoke English very well were much less likely to be vulnerable. But the people we interviewed in their mother tongue did not speak particularly good English. The language barrier was restricting them to some particular forms of employment where they did not necessarily needed English and the employers knew that they were dependent on that kind of work. Also, when people first move to a new country they don’t have full information about the labour market, about their rights and about the system in place to ensure those rights are protected. Migrants have more limited labour market information than non-migrants in a lot of cases.

There was also a tendency for some migrant workers to be willing to accept certain paying conditions that domestic workers would not accept, because they did not have to. There might be other employment alternatives or benefits available to domestic workers, while there would not be there for migrants. It might also be that some migrant workers have a particular temporary outlook on a job. They thought that this job paid a wage that could be worthly transferred back to their home country because of the exchange rate. It might also be that migrants coming from a particular country would have been unemployed in that country. Moving to the UK to take any job might be better than unemployment.

What do you think can be done to prevent further labour exploitation?

In the UK, we have an interesting system in the food industry whereby a particular agency – called the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) – issues a license to labour providers to operate within the food industry. That seems to be quite successful in maintaining standards and ensuring they don’t go below a particular level set by the GLA. The national minimum wage which came in the late 1990s has been another success story.

Despite this we do not have a system whereby workers are supported in any way to take up the claims they might have against an employer. It is unlikely for example that workers would use the employment tribunal routes. It is also unlikely that the government will inspectorate on workplaces to check that the conditions and payments are up to a certain standard. Beyond the GLA which operates only within the food industry, there is no general labour inspectorate in the UK. So we could certainly look down the labour inspectorate route and the route of supporting workers wanting to take a case against their employers.

One of the things we uncovered in that survey was that workers were generally quite fearful of raising a grievance against their employer – for fear of losing their job or not getting work in the future. And I think that is a really big issue, probably the most important issue. It is difficult to address it. We have to think about the fact that there is quite an uneven relationship between an individual worker and an employer. In sectors where conditions tend to be better, there is more of a role for union activity. But in other sectors that’s not the case. One of the big solutions really seems to me to be one situation in which workers come together more collectively and unions play a stronger role. But the question is how you do that in employment sectors where there is significant temporary employment and there are no incentives or opportunities for workers to come together collectively and to be part of a union system? The big thing is to challenge the climate of fear that low-wage and temporary workers – and migrant workers in particular – face within the industry.

Sam Scott’s report on forced labour in the UK food industry can be downloaded from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website: