19 Oct 2015

Supermarkets launch investigations over migrant exploitation

Business Editor

They pack 1 in 4 apples you buy in Britain’s top supermarkets. But who are the people doing the work? Channel 4 News has been undercover at Britain’s largest growing, packing and storage operation.

And what we discovered was nothing short of shocking.

At Nickle Farm in Kent, we found a small army of largely Romanian workers – lured here by a network of Romanian employment agencies who pass them on to one here in Britain called Pro-force.

Tonight Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer have all told Channel 4 News they have launched investigations. And one supermarket, Aldi, has suspended its orders. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has also launched an investigation into our findings.

Our undercover reporter experienced first hand the highly-pressured environment, with managers breathing down workers’ necks to meet strict targets. And with many of them living in appalling conditions that they say are supplied by the agency they work for – and that some say aren’t fit for animals.

The workers are here legally but new research shows that Britain has the lowest number of labour inspectors among similar EU countries and investigations are declining as budgets are cut.

The workers are told their accommodation will be deluxe yet tonight’s report will show images at one site used by Pro-Force of faeces-encrusted toilets; soiled, sodden carpets; mould-infested walls and showers not fit for human use.

One couple tells the programme when they entered their caravan it smelled like a corpse.

‘Like a ghetto’

“The first evening when I went in there you couldn’t breathe, the smell was unbearable, you could have fainted. Like a ghetto. Like walking into a ghetto. They are not fit for humans.”

Yet when they complained, they were told to leave if they weren’t happy.

The worker said: “She said that other caravans were worse than the ones we lived in. She told us that ours was one of the best ones.”

Up to 6 workers are squeezed into each caravan and made to pay £35 each a week in rent, giving the agency Pro Force additional revenue of as much as £20,000 a week. Pro Force denies this, saying that figure doesn’t take into account the costs incurred in providing the accomodation.

On top of that, one Pro-Force manager filmed undercover tells the workers they must pay for gas and electricity, although Pro-Force told us it provides £5 of electricity for free each week.

And in addition, workers have to pay £5 a day for the shuttle bus that takes them to and from the field and pack house – again more potential income for Pro-Force.

Aggressive bosses

Pro-Force supplies workers to the packing plant at Nickle Farm, which is run by FW Mansfield. In the pack house, we expose aggressive bosses shouting at staff to work ever-harder. On one occasion, workers ask for a short break to have water.

We witness the boss threatening to throw them all out and replace them with other workers. “If you don’t want to work I’m going to send this whole team home ok… and I’m going to get another people in.”

One worker pipes up. “It’s not about that people don’t want to work. We just want to get some water, to breathe…”

Another worker tells us he feels they treated “like objects.” They have to pack five bags of apples a minute, with bosses always pressing them to work faster. If the packers fail to meet their targets, the worker tells us they are disciplined, or simply left off the shift for the next day.

“They kick them off,” the worker says.

‘Push the guys’

One boss tells our undercover reporter. “You must understand how important it is to push the guys. There are only five people to manage but sometimes it’s harder to manage five people than 30 people. Because you have to pressure.”

In one incident, a manager reveals: “I had such a problem today. Sixteen people called me yesterday saying that they’re sick because of this pack house.” We’re later told by one of the workers the air conditioning unit had been leaking fumes but the bosses had not allowed the workers to leave until the end of their shift.

“Yes it’s like someone is pushing your head,” the worker tells us. “They leave us…to stay there until they finish the order. The next day something like 15 or 16 people don’t come to work because they feel sick.”

Mansfield and Pro-Force told us that they did not receive any complaints about this incident. Pro-Force says only two people left their shift early and say the fumes were harmless condensation.

And all this under the eyes of Britain’s biggest supermarkets who all use the farm in Kent to source their fruit. We’re told that when the supermarkets come to do their audits, the work lines are deliberately slowed down and the place is cleaned up, something both firms deny.

Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer have all launched investigations. And one supermarket Aldi – has suspended its orders.

Brits ‘unprepared’ to work

One worker close to tears admits. “I didn’t have the courage to tell my family back home about the conditions and what is happening here.”

Some can’t take it and leave. Yet 170,000 Romanians have come here this year alone looking to better their lives. And more will follow.

Perhaps what’s most startling about our footage is the fact that the majority of workers are from Eastern Europe – despite the fact these farms are in Kent – the so-called Garden of England – and open to British workers in exactly the same way. British workers who often criticise migrants for coming to the UK and taking British jobs.

Yet all the Romanian workers we spoke to said that if British workers do sign up, they leave within days, unprepared to work under the types of conditions that they are forced to tolerate.

All of which leaves migrant workers potentially more open to exploitation.

Channel 4 News has learned that the The Gangmasters Licensing Authority – which provides licenses to the employment agencies – is conducting an investigation into the agencies that supply Mansfields.

Neither the GLA, nor the supermarkets or the body – the British Retail Consortium – that represents them would agree to come on our programme this evening.

This investigation was done in collaboration with EcoStorm who specialise in environmental, human-rights and welfare issues.