Around 250 workers blocked a road on the Shropshire border in the West Midlands last week in protest at their pay and conditions. Their action has given a glimpse of the way young people from Eastern Europe are brought in to harvest the crops which then appear in Britain’s supermarkets.
The workers are some of the 1,500 employed by S&A Produce at Brierley, near Leominster, under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
This is Europe’s biggest strawberry farm — it will plant 26 million strawberry plants next year.
Olia Volodkevich, one of the striking workers, said, “They don’t respect us. They treat us like animal people.”
Kostia Kravchuk, 22, from the Ukraine, added, “I paid £400 to come here and I have been working non-stop for ten weeks. But in that time I have only been paid £600. To make £200 profit in ten weeks is not good. How am I supposed to live on £20 a week?”
Workers say they have to pay a lot of their wages back to S&A. The company charges £26.25 a week for accommodation in a mobile home, a £3 a week “facility charge” for sewers and waste collection, £2 a week for electricity, £2 a week for social club membership, plus a hire charge for cutlery, crockery bedding and heaters, together with a one off charge of £30 for a “welfare and pastoral service”:
All of this must come out of a wage of £4.85 an hour which workers get for 39 hours a week on a 12 week contract. And before they get here they have typically paid at least £300 and often £500 to one of the 3,000 documented gangmasters who arrange foreign labourers to come to Britain.
There are probably at least as many gangmasters who act illegally, demanding bribes for work offers and stealing workers’ wages.
A report by the GMB union earlier this year found examples of the way such workers (not at S&A) were treated. They included:
- Non-payment of the national minimum wage, with the lowest cases being £2.30 an hour.
- Workers not given any written terms and conditions or contracts.
- Unlawful deductions from pay for accommodation or travel.
- Accommodation often squalid and unsafe with workers paying rents of £50 to £70 a week for a system of “hot bedding”, where as one worker goes to start picking another uses their bed.
- Charges for repairs and cleaning that are not carried out.
- Travel to work in unsafe vehicles.
- Workers forced to surrender passports or documents to prevent them working for others.
- An absence, in some cases, of any direct payments at all to the workers.
- Workers forced to sign opt-outs from the working time directive’s 48 hour a week limit to secure employment.
- Women workers facing sexual harassment from shift managers and representatives of the gangmaster.
A recent Citizens Advice Bureau report gave other examples. In Worcestershire a Ukrainian man had entered Britain under the seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme to work on a local farm. He had been led to believe that he would be paid £4.50 per hour — but in reality he received just £20 for each ten hour day he worked.
In Bolton a 17 year old pregnant Portuguese woman and her husband had been brought to Britain to work on local farms. They were sharing a house with 17 other workers and, after deductions for transport and housing, were left with £6 per week to live on.
In September 2003 an inquiry by the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee concluded that in the agriculture sector, “a significant number of gangmasters are involved in illegal activity, including the non-payment of taxes, employment of illegal workers from abroad, who are often housed in appalling conditions, and flouting of employment legislation”.
The committee further concluded that “the dominant position of the supermarkets in relation to their suppliers is a significant contributory factor in creating an environment where illegal activity can take root”, and described the action taken by government to date to be “woefully inadequate”.
The government has proposed new laws to regulate the gangmasters. But they specifically exclude many workers in food processing and packaging.
And, as the S&A walkout shows, workers who are employed by companies which act entirely within the law still get a raw deal. Behind the profits for the supermarkets and S&A lies low pay and empty promises to vulnerable young workers.
S&A’s rules for its workforce
- Make sure you understand the main rules. If they are not followed you will get in to trouble.
- Make sure you get plenty of sleep ready for early morning starts and do not disturb others who are trying to sleep by being noisy.
- Check the students’ notice board every evening to see what time you should start work the following day.
- Do not be late for work. Always try to be a few minutes early for work for your daily registration.
- Be sure you know what your job is and how it should be done and always try to do it properly.