Waitrose has stopped buying fruit from a major supplier after an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News exposed the squalid living conditions of migrant workers.
The supermarket giant said it had “suspended the supply of fruit” from Nickle Farm in Kent “while we work with managers to improve conditions”.
The move came after Channel 4 News reported how thousands of Eastern European fruit pickers are being lured to the UK by Romanian employment agencies who charge them high fees and make false promises about pay and working conditions.
Two other supermarkets have launched inquiries into the firms that supply their apples a fourth major retailer, Aldi, has suspended all orders from the plant pending an investigation.
Once in England, the workers are forced to pay rent and expenses for the privilege of living on caravan sites, some in filthy conditions – generating additional revenue for the agencies and eating into the migrants’ meagre wages.
A Channel 4 News investigation has centred on the packing operation at Nickle Farm in Kent, a fruit-growing business run by F W Mansfield and Sons, and the network of employment agencies it uses to source its mostly Romanian workers.
One picker told us he had paid an employment agency in Romania hundreds of pounds to get a contract.
He was passed to a UK-based company called Pro-Force, a major supplier of labour to Mansfields.
“In two weeks I worked five days. Only five days. I’ve reached a stage where I no longer have money to eat.
“And I’ve got colleagues who don’t have anything to eat. So badly that they beg for a slice bread – that’s how bad things are.”
Dragos Radulescu, one of 170,000 Romanians who has come to work in Britain this year alone, said he was promised good money by an agency, but the hours he expected never materialised.
He said: “The agency, they told us that it was a good farm, that there is plenty of work, that money can be made, that was it.
“There was never a lot of work. They kept telling to us that it’s going to get very busy but it never did. We went there to work, we didn’t go there to beg.”
One Romanian agency Channel 4 News found but cannot name for legal reasons entices workers with pictures of deluxe accommodation with sea views. They passed workers onto Pro-Force in the UK.
Video footage provided to Channel 4 News by one couple who worked in the pack house showed rubbish being burned in the corner of one site down the road from Nickle Farm.
They say they ended up paying £35 a week for a filthy and unhygienic caravan. Pro-Force say that this caravan was in fact a disused portacabin that was broken into.
Other mobile homes leaked and had no running water or toilets. Pro-Force told us they no longer use this Romanian agency.
A Pro-Force manager told new workers they have to pay for electricity and gas as well as accommodation.
One couple were given just eight hours work, leaving them with just £16.15 after paying £37.50 each in rental income. They were forced to eat into their savings to cover the cost of living.
Channel 4 News estimates that the caravan sites could generate tens of thousands a week for the owners on rental income alone.
But Pro-Force told us this fails to take account the costs incurred in providing the accommodation.
The company says it provides £5 a week of free electricity for all workers, and waives the rent for pickers who fail to get more than 15 hours work a week.
It also insists it runs a transport service at a loss, despite charging £5 a day to shuttle workers from the caravans to the fields.
And Pro-Force told us its accommodation has recently been inspected by the Health and Safety Executive, which raised no concerns.
Following broadcast the HSE issued this statement on their website.
Waitrose said in a statement: “Worker welfare is a top priority for us and a requirement for supplying our business. We are taking these allegations very seriously and immediately arranged an unannounced independent audit of this site, as well as a visit by senior members of our own team.
“Following our own investigation we have suspended the supply of fruit from Nickle Farm while we work with managers to improve conditions.”
Britain has the lowest number of labour inspectors among similar EU countries and they are carrying out fewer investigations as budgets are cut.
Kevin Green, chief executive of the professional body for the recruitment industry, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said: “Tonight’s Channel 4 News exposé appeared to show shocking behaviour towards temporary workers at Nickle Farm.
“We will carry out an extensive investigation into the allegations made against the recruitment agency Pro-Force. We understand that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority are already investigating and we will do everything we can to support this investigation.
“All workers, whether from the UK or overseas, are protected by specific regulations. The vast majority of recruiters abide by the rules and treat their workers correctly.
“We will only allow legitimate, professional agencies into the REC. These are serious allegations and if Pro-Force are found to have breached our code of conduct we will take robust action.”