ourEconomy: Investigation

Revealed: How the UK’s agriculture sector relies on modern slavery

The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest in a long line of opportunities for criminals to exploit agricultural workers.

Victoria Noble
16 September 2020, 9.32am
Harvest workers protest against abuses, poor pay and conditions in accommodation, Bornheim, May 2020
Thomas Banneyer/DPA/PA Images

Calls to ‘Pick for Britain’ during lockdown have highlighted the essential work of agricultural workers. Yet less recognised has been the sector’s victims of modern slavery – and the fact that the pandemic is the latest in a long line of opportunities for the criminals that exploit them.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), who regulate the industry and investigate modern slavery, recently stated that referrals relating to exploitation in the first half of 2020 equalled the total amount for 2017.

Gary Craig, Professor of Social Justice and Visiting Professor at Newcastle University, described the situation as a “perfect storm”.

“The pressures on employers to pay low wages, to house people in appalling conditions, to demand very long work shifts, these are all going to grow,” he told openDemocracy. “These are obviously not going to be helped with the COVID situation.”

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“It would be absolutely amazing if we saw modern slavery numbers decline in the next few years. I think it’s going to get much worse.”

Slaves in our supply chains

The problem of modern slavery in the industry is not new, and agriculture is already more at risk than any other sector. It is heavily reliant on migrant seasonal workers who can be vulnerable to exploitation because they seek assistance to travel to the UK without knowing their rights. This means businesses can be infiltrated by organised crime groups who threaten workers with violence, debt bondage or withholding their travel documents.

Edmundas Mikiulkevicius was one of eleven Lithuanian trafficking victims who won a High Court case against their employer last year, which was described as “the worst gangmaster ever” by the GLAA.

Mikiulkevicius was employed to catch chickens for DJ Houghton Catching Services, a Kent-based company run by Darrell Houghton and Jackie Judge. He has spoken to openDemocracy for the first time about his experience.

“The working conditions were horrible,” Mikiulkevicius told openDemocracy. “I was living with five people in one room. Sometimes we were driven to work during the night and we didn’t even know how long the shifts were going to last. We didn’t even know where we were going.”

The court case found that the labourers worked hours at a time, sleeping in minibuses as they were driven from farm to farm. They were underpaid and often docked wages as punishment.

“We were not allowed to leave our house so if they [Houghton and Judge] saw that we were talking to other people from other houses, they would take away our pay cheques,” he shared. “Not only were we underpaid, but we also had to pay them for being employed and also had to pay for rent.”

Mikiulkevicius explained Houghton and Judge would deliberately employ workers who couldn’t understand English, knowing that non-English speakers were more vulnerable because they were unable to speak out. They also used a Lithuanian enforcer to threaten workers to stay in line.

“There were cases where they were going after us with dogs to do our job, or there were fights,” he said. “A lot of people experienced physical injuries and traumas.”

In a landmark decision, the High Court judge held Houghton and Judge personally liable for the damages paid to the exploited workers, rather than the company.

Mikiulkevicius is now back in Lithuania working as a firefighter. But he was “shocked” that workers could be deliberately exploited in the UK.

Perhaps more shocking is that DJ Houghton Catching Services was contracted to work for supermarket brands like Happy Eggs, owned by Noble Foods. While there was no suggestion that Noble Foods knew about the corruption in their supply chain, the case demonstrates the hidden exploitation involved in bringing well-known products to our shelves.

The business of ending modern slavery

Shayne Tyler knows more than most about the role of businesses in tackling modern slavery. Twenty years ago, the factory of his previous employer was exposed on BBC Panorama for the illegal employment of over 200 staff.

While the business itself had not broken the law – it wasn’t aware it had been employing exploited workers – Tyler describes it as a “life-changing moment”.

“I was saying goodnight to these workers each day, not realising that they were going back into exploitative conditions,” he told openDemocracy. “I was totally shocked about workers on as little as 17p an hour. I couldn’t believe what a human could do to another. And I vowed that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Tyler is now Group Compliance Director for Fresca Group, the UK’s largest fresh produce supplier. He is in charge of the health, safety and welfare of employees – including spotting and preventing modern slavery. While he doesn’t believe that businesses are always to blame for exploitation in their workforce, he does think they could follow Fresca Group in seeking to prevent it.

“If businesses generally look at the cost incurred for implementing systems to manage modern slavery, they see it as a hindrance,” he said. “But I expect them [businesses] to be putting in systems to look out for modern slavery or worker exploitation – it’s part of their responsibility under health and safety and welfare law.”

Yet it is an almost impossible task. Fresca Group encompasses 18 companies and operates in over 54 countries. Despite dedicating over 20 years to identifying modern slaves, Tyler acknowledges that he would need a “miracle to get at the whole supply chain”.

“We are no different from any other area of the food sector. It [modern slavery] is there. If you go looking for it, you will find it.

“All I know is next year some human beings will be exploited by human beings and I just hope more businesses have joined the fight to stop that happening.”

A regulator in trouble

In 2004, 23 Chinese cockle pickers were drowned in the Morecambe Bay tragedy. It became clear that businesses alone would not be able to root out the underworld of criminals who controlled the industry.

In response, the government established the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (then known as the GLA), tasked with licensing labour suppliers to agriculture, forestry, shellfish gathering and food processing and packaging. This transformed those industries, rooting out many criminal organisations.

But the Immigration Act 2016 expanded the GLAA’s remit dramatically, providing it with powers and specialist officers to investigate severe exploitation. More significantly, its remit now covered the entire UK labour market.

Budgets increased but Gary Craig, who also co-convenes the Modern Slavery Research Consortium, believes the shift left the regulator “seriously under-resourced.”

Craig’s research showed that, although the GLAA had a 6,000% increase in the number of workers it was responsible for, it only received a 60% increase in its own staff.

“Now you don’t have to be Einstein to work out there’s something rather disproportionate about that,” he said. “The GLAA is simply not able to do the job that it’s set itself to do.”

Craig is also concerned that the GLAA’s focus has shifted from ‘protecting vulnerable and exploited workers’, as it says on its website, towards identifying those who are working illegally.

“The GLAA had its remit changed in the Immigration Act 2016. So immediately you get this body that’s supposed to be helping vulnerable workers situated within immigration policy and the government immigration policy is certainly not to help vulnerable workers.”

Those fears are well-founded – the GLAA operates independently of government but local police have posted photographs of joint initiatives between the GLAA and Home Office Immigration Enforcement on Twitter. Recent Freedom of Information requests have shown that these joint initiatives increased by almost 20% from 2018 to 2019. In 2018, the GLAA told Immigration Enforcement about 40 cases.

Craig said that “a lot of people who are victims of slavery won’t present themselves because they’re afraid of being deported.” This is likely to get worse after Brexit, as it becomes more difficult for Eastern European workers to come over for seasonal labour.

In an online Q&A hosted by the GLAA during lockdown, anonymous workers took the opportunity to voice their mistrust.

One said: “Many of us see GLAA as the government – the police, or the best friend of employers. Many in community don’t [trust] you, so say nothing.”

The GLAA’s Head of Enforcement Ian Waterfield told openDemocracy: “Since we were given our new police-style powers and rebranded as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority in 2017, significant progress has been made in tackling labour exploitation with more victims rescued than ever before.

“Safeguarding victims is our first priority in all cases but we recognise how complex it is to effectively regulate and police labour markets to prevent worker exploitation. The right to work in the UK is not a focus of our activity but we have a duty to share intelligence and information with our partners. However, this sharing of information on its own is not an indication of increased joint activity.

“Our confidential reporting hotline means that reports to us are in the strictest confidence and will be fully investigated by our intelligence team, with the number one aim of identifying and protecting potential victims of labour exploitation.”

Fears for the future

Farmers are already desperate for workers as a result of the pandemic. Brexit will make this worse, with the National Farmers Union worried that agricultural jobs have been left off the list of roles in need of workers after the UK leaves the EU.

Craig believes the outlook is bleak, with businesses under increasing pressure, an under-funded regulator and workers fearful of engaging with authorities.

“You cannot be very optimistic about the ability of the United Kingdom to respond effectively to the growth of modern slavery,” he said.

But Shayne Tyler hopes that the community spirit felt during lockdown might make people take notice of hidden slavery victims.

“I’m hoping that COVID might change things a bit,” he said. “Society has looked at other areas of society and taken a moment to care for them. I hope that can be extended.

“Having looked into the eyes of a victim, the consequences of not doing what I can are far too painful. Frankly I don’t want to look into another victim’s eyes knowing that it’s my fault.”

Suspected modern slavery can be reported to the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700. Farmers and pickers concerned about modern slavery can also find out more on the Farm Work Welfare app.

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