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UK: Investigation launched into worker exploitation at Kent farm
"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," stated the Channel 4 reporter.
On Monday evening Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer all told Channel 4 News they have launched investigations. Aldi, has suspended its orders. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has also launched an investigation into the findings.
The TV channel's undercover reporter is said to have experienced first hand the highly-pressured environment, with managers breathing down workers' necks to meet strict targets. Many of them are said to be 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.
According to the reporter the workers are told their accommodation will be deluxe yet Channel 4's report showed 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.
According to the investigation 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 the figure doesn't take into account the costs incurred in providing the accommodation.
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.
In response the claims Matthew Jarrett, Managing Director, Pro-Force Limited commented:
“Pro-Force operates in a highly regulated sector, and is under constant scrutiny by third party auditors, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Health & Safety Executive, HMRC and SEDEX, the “ethical watchdog” for the supermarkets. We are monitored continually, and have never failed any of the numerous unannounced audits carried out, demonstrating our best practice in all aspects of our business.
We are therefore very disappointed that Channel 4 News has broadcast numerous and wide-ranging allegations of serious wrongdoing, despite Pro-Force having given them extensive evidence that its allegations were unfounded and its sources of information lacked credibility.
When we were contacted by Channel 4 News with its claims, we informed them that the living conditions they described – we were not shown footage – bore no relation to the standards of the accommodation we supply, which is audited frequently by regulators as well as weekly by our welfare officers.
Now we have seen the footage Channel 4 News has deployed to make its allegations, Pro-Force can confirm it is in fact a compilation of images of: a toilet and damaged wall from an old, disused portacabin that had been broken into; a surplus, disconnected sink in a caravan that was due for removal and which until recently only had a hairline fracture; and close up views of a couple of damp patches – common when vents are closed – in an otherwise clean and tidy caravan. These must have been edited together to create the impression Channel 4 News clearly wanted to portray. It is not footage of a worker’s caravan, contrary to the assertions made by Channel 4 News."
Pro-Force supplies workers to the packing plant at Nickle Farm, which is run by FW Mansfield. In the pack house, the undercover video shows bosses shouting at staff to work ever-harder. On one occasion, workers ask for a short break to have water, and the boss threatens 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 group in."
One boss tells the 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 apply 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.
Mansfield and Pro-Force told Channel 4 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.
Jarrett added, "We gave Channel 4 News unambiguous evidence from the air conditioning engineer (who is not employed by Pro-Force or its client) that the fluid used in the system is non-toxic, that none escaped and that the mist was condensing air. Channel 4 News ignored this conclusive evidence that there could be no sickness from fumes."
Channel 4 were 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.
"We adhere to all the legal standards governing our industry. However, Pro-Force strives to go beyond these, always looking for improvement in all areas. We have a number of ways for workers to report, anonymously, any problems with their working conditions or living arrangements. Our workers are our greatest asset, and we’re committed to ensuring they have a rewarding experience working with us.
Despite this, we accept there are some areas we want to look into further – such as how staff are communicated with, how clearly they understand that, for example, overtime is optional. Should this uncover any area for improvement, we will rectify problems and review processes as necessary, in our ongoing efforts to be the leading labour provider in our field.
"Channel 4 News has not shown the typical experiences of our workers, 70% of whom are returnees, coming back to us year after year. That is a clear testament to our dedication to high welfare standards," concludes Jarrett.
170,000 Romanians have made their way to the UK looking to better their lives. And more will follow. These jobs are also open to UK workers but most refuse to do this kind of work and leave within a few days. This leaves migrant workers potentially more open to exploitation.
Channel 4 News stated that The Gangmasters Licensing Authority - which provides licenses to the employment agencies - is conducting an investigation into the agencies that supply Mansfields.
Mandfields was not available for comment at time of publishing.
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