An army of modern-day “slaves” are being used to grow the salad and winter vegetables that fill Britain’s supermarket shelves.
The claims are made by politicians and workers in Spain who say migrants employed to pick salad for companies whose produce ends up on the shelves of British supermarkets are routinely mistreated, forced to work weeks on end, cheated out of wages and exposed to pesticides.
Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda all say they source our food responsibly and they have all signed up to the Global Ethical Trading Initiative, designed to protect workers’ rights. M&S promotes its Field to Fork policy assuring customers its suppliers adhere to high standards. Waitrose claim their produce is “responsibly sourced”.
They suck the blood out of people. You work for two or four months and then they sack you without severance. Lettuce picker
But an investigation by Channel 4 News has spoken to workers picking vegetables for a Spanish company whose produce is supplied to Tesco, Sainsbury’s Asda, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. The company, Agroherni, grows conventional and highly priced organic lettuces, herbs and salad leaves in a trade worth almost 30m euros a year.
Agroherni uses an employment agency called Integra Empleo to provide casual workers to pick the produce in its fields. Workers spoken to by Channel 4 News claim the agency routinely mistreats the workers.
One lettuce picker told the programme: “They suck the blood out of people. You work for two or four months and then they sack you without severance, without payment, without anything. If we work 26 days, they write down 16 or 18. They always steal seven or eight days. It’s not right.”
Another worker claimed he had worked 22 days in one month, but was only paid for 17. When he complained, he says he was told: “You’ve been paid the amount of money you deserve. If you think that’s not enough then you can leave.”
Among the many allegations the workers say they are forced to work overtime but often not paid for it and if they refuse they are sometimes blacklisted.
The cold I feel is inside from the fumes I inhaled whilst they were fumigating. Former worker
Under EU laws it is illegal for pickers to be in close proximity to pesticide machines as they work. But Channel 4 News filmed dozens of people working in the same field while chemicals were being sprayed.
One worker said she fell ill when working in fields where pesticides were being sprayed. That was two years ago but even after multiple operations on her sinuses she is in constant pain and unable to work.
She said: “They spray whilst employees work. All that matters to them is fulfilling their clients’ orders. They do not care.” She added: “The cold I feel is inside from the fumes I inhaled whilst they were fumigating. I find it difficult to speak. I feel worse and worse.”
Another worker told Channel 4 News that just weeks ago he was rushed to hospital after breathing in fumes. He was signed off by a doctor with bronchitis caused by exposure to pesticides. The following day he was fired by the employment agency Integra Empleo.
Agroherni told us: “No pesticides are permitted on farms to be harvested. Workers are forbidden to enter any farm within 24 hours of the application of pesticides. Agroherni’s management are not aware of any relevant incidents taking place.”
Workers and unions in the region say exposure to pesticides is common across the industry in southern Spain and is not confined to one company. Channel 4 News filmed the giant pesticide sprayers at work in another company’s salad farm, while workers were working the same field close by.
Seasonal Workers employed through agencies also told Channel 4 News that they:
But with high unemployment in Spain, many migrant workers are still desperate to earn a living. We were told the police were aware of this practice taking place but little was done to stop it.
All the major British supermarkets have signed up to tough standards on working conditions for their suppliers and claim they try to enforce them rigorously and there is no suggestion they knew of the workers’ complaints.
The Ethical Trading Initiative says that all overtime should be voluntary and no deductions should be made from wages without a worker’s consent. It also says that workers must be free to voice complaints without being discriminated against.
All our top supermarkets say they abide by these rules and Tesco even says it has local ethical trade managers on the ground who investigate claims locally. They also all have strict health and safety rules.
But the allegations we heard during our investigation suggests that employment agencies who supply much of the seasonal casual labour are less than rigorous about maintaining ethical standards. Agroherni itself states in its annual accounts for 2010 that it has saved on staff costs by “outsourcing” staff rather than employing them directly.
Both Agroherni and the employment agency Integra Empleo deny all the allegations and both companies say they have launched investigations into the claims.
Agroherni told us it strongly denies any claim that it mistreats or exploits agency workers and said the fair treatment and safety of workers was “paramount”.
It said 15 third party audits had been carried out on its farms in 2014/15 but “only a discrete number of issues were highlighted.”
However, as a result of our investigation, it has ceased working with Integra Empleo and is making arrangements to directly employ the workers employed through them directly.â??
Channel 4 News contacted all the supermarkets with these claims.
Sainsbury’s told us: “We expect our suppliers to adhere to the highest quality and welfare standards, regardless of where they operate in the world. We are taking these allegations very seriously and will be conducting our own investigation.”
Waitrose told us: “Worker welfare is very important to us – our supplier is investigating these allegations and will ensure that our high standards are being met.”
The British Retail Consortium which represents all the supermarkets told us: “Ensuring workers are treated fairly in our supply chains is a key concern for retailers and we know all supermarkets will examine these allegations closely to take both immediate action where appropriate and refine their auditing procedures.
“Investment in ethical auditing has been a priority for UK supermarkets and they will continue to improve and adapt them to meet future challenges; something we made clear in our clear support for the Modern Slavery Act.
“However, ethical auditing is only one part of the solution to this which also requires effective day to day management of labour issues by suppliers and clear support from governments, both here and abroad, to enforce basic labour legislation.”
There are now more than 40 employment agencies supplying labour to farm growers in the Murcia region and trade unions say abuse of workers’ rights is rife.
Earlier this year, 5,000 of them turned out to demonstrate on the streets. Local politicians say the problem is widespread across the industry.
In a recent debate in the Murcia Regional Assembly, Pujante Diekman of the left coalition IU party said: “I believe that some of the working conditions are similar to slavery in some cases, and I have been able to verify that myself. I have seen it with my own eyes.
“This is an economy that can be described as slavery or semi-slavery, where workers have been cheated by cold blooded people, by people who have broken the law, plain and simple.”
Representatives from all parties, from left to right, voted in favour of a motion calling for working conditions to be improved.