‘A disaster waiting to happen’

As Covid-19 strikes at a broccoli farm, UNITElive investigates how it happened – and how it could again

Reading time: 9 min

For many months Unite’s food and agriculture activists have been extremely concerned over the way workers are being packed into factories and field, many of them migrant workers often living in cramped and squalid conditions.

Unite has said that without proper adherence to government Covid-19 safety precautions, social distancing and using the correct PPE, these workers were at risk of contracting the virus. But in many cases there has been no adherence, no compliance and no safety checks.

In the last few weeks we have heard of 450 workers at four food factories across England and Wales testing positive for coronavirus, including over 150 at an Asda-owned site in West Yorkshire, raising concerns that food processing sites were contributing to the spread of Covid-19.

Sadly over this last weekend at least 73 vegetable pickers at AS Green & Co, a farm in Herefordshire, have been confirmed as having Covid-19. The farm sells mainly broccoli, broad beans and runner beans to Sainsbury’s, Asda, M&S and Aldi supermarkets.

All 200 of the farm’s workforce has been told to isolate to reduce the risk of the outbreak spreading outside the farm, an official said.

During harvest season pickers and packers live in ‘mobile homes’. UNITElive doesn’t know the breakdown of migrant to UK workers on this particular farm, or UK workers to local workers, but our colleagues in Unite Landworker have long reported cases of the poor, dirty and overcrowded accommodation workers are made to live in – with their ‘rent and energy bills’ taken out of their wages.

Back at the farm, Public Health England (PHE) has provided on-site testing facilities and has given workers personal protective equipment to try to contain the outbreak. Satellite images of the packing site appear to show the plant surrounded by more than 30 mobile homes.

A statement from the farm said, “Our staff are our priority, they are hardworking key workers helping us provide food for the country during these unusual times. We contacted Public Health England (PHE) and we are working closely with them and public health at Herefordshire council to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

Most of the farm’s workforce are usually drawn from eastern Europe, but travel restrictions this year forced it to launch a local recruitment drive too.

In April the farm’s owner, Andrew Green, told the Hereford Times that the business was hoping to attract furloughed workers wanting to earn extra money.

‘Safe, healthy environment’?

He said, “We are looking for local workers to join our family team in Mathon. Not only does the role provide the opportunity to work in a safe, healthy environment throughout the summer months, but it also enables those who have been financially impacted by the pandemic to boost their income, without jeopardising the support they will receive through the government furlough scheme.”

Unite has had many concerns about the safety of picking and packing – not a job you can easily distance yourself in. Research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has found that food processing plants have been prone to localised outbreaks. Unite believes that this could also apply to packers and that the living conditions of many low-paid workers in such close quarters is a contributing factor, as well as time spent working in communal spaces.

But according to an NFU spokesperson there is nothing to worry about. The spokesperson told Farmers’ Guardian, “The industry takes this issue incredibly seriously and everything is being done to keep workers safe; their health and safety remains the priority.

“Across the sector there have been significant investments this season; from the use of additional safety equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE), regularly testing temperatures, and following government guidance created specifically for seasonal workers.”

Clearly this farm’s working environment was not safe enough. Karen (not her real name), one of three UK-based women packers, told the Guardian about her experiences.

Karen shared one of the 33 mobile homes on the site at a cost of £50 each per week, earning £8.85 per hour for the first 48 hours a week and £11.06 thereafter, often working 12-hour shifts or longer.

“No one choosing to put broccoli in their baskets has any idea what it is like to pack it,” she said. “You have a crate of broccoli and you have to trim it or not trim it depending on who wants it, and then put it into the right weight pile, and that goes on to a conveyor belt that takes it off to a machine that wraps it up in plastic.”

Punished for being ‘too slow’

But, she claimed there were financial penalties for staff. “People were punished for getting stuff wrong or being too slow. If you were slow you had to have a day off. It didn’t happen to me, but our whole line was sent home early one day.

“They are audited and accredited by a whole selection of different labels that people stick on food, so I imagine there are farms that are worse,” she added.

From that account you can see it’s far from an easy job to work as a packer or picker. The hours are long, an extreme level of continuous dexterity is required, you are working and probably living shoulder to shoulder with strangers in unsuitable housing, safety standards are variable, your wages are pretty low – and that’s before payment is extracted for the benefit of living often in squalor.

Now imagine if you were a migrant worker with top picking skills but a limited knowledge of English and your rights – and you can see how easy it is for these workers to be exploited.

Of course conditions vary from employer to employer. But all workers should be on the national minimum or national living wage, regardless of where they are from. Whether you work in a nation which has a wage-setting agricultural wages board – or in England which does not – no worker should be falling below the legal minimum pay levels.

Wage theft happens with workers throughout Unite’s many sectors. But in agriculture many migrant workers face difficult challenges. Apart from the obvious language and not knowing your rights issues, there may well be an intimidating atmosphere in the workplace and people just don’t feel able to ask questions or to challenge what they’ve been paid.

Labour enforcement through statutory agencies is difficult to access, and the capacity for help and protection from migrant worker agencies has been hit by austerity. But even if you know your rights, and how to contact a statutory agency, in agriculture and horticulture you are likely to be in a remote area – often problematic for internet connection and mobile signal – and to be under close supervision from your manager.

Migrant workers are key to many farm businesses success, but Covid-19 strict travel restrictions has meant farm owners had to widen their employment net. Back in April Defra secretary George Eustice launched his ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign, encouraging UK workers, especially those on furlough, to take to the fields and pick.

Picking for Britain – ‘a great success’?

On June 30, speaking to the environment, food and rural affairs select committee, Eustice claimed the initiative had been a ‘great success’ with large companies, reporting one third of pickers were British during the peak month of June.

“The feedback from industry was the campaign had been a success, since they had recruited a third of their labour and did not need a further boost of the campaign,” he crowed.

But last week growers warned they are still struggling to attract and retain workers, with a new report by Andersons revealing Covid-19 has seen a spike in labour costs up to 15 per cent.

As the UK enters its peak picking season there is an estimated shortfall of about 80,000 workers and subsequent spike in labour costs, believed to have been exacerbated by Covid-19, access to migrant labour and a lack of returns paid for UK produce. And so as ever, the price of our home-produced food goes up.

The need for skilled, fast workers, the increases in worker costs, supermarkets demanding perfect shaped strawberries for less than it costs to produce them, importing cheaper products to make a still bigger profit – all go to make the supermarkets the only winners out of this ghastly pandemic, where key workers in food and elsewhere have put their lives at risk, and where so many of us have already lost so much.

“We said at the start of this pandemic that this is something that is likely to happen, and in particular on the farms because workers are put in caravans or dormitories where they have to share,” commented Bev Clarkson, Unite national officer.

“Employers say they are doing all they can but they say they can’t adhere to the guidelines on social distancing.

“If one person gets coronavirus it will spread very quickly as has happened here, so this bubble idea is not working.”

And the winner takes it all.

“Supermarkets have to be held accountable for what is happening within the supply chain. If supermarkets weren’t demanding such cheap prices then these people could live and work in better conditions. This was just a disaster waiting to happen,” she added.

By Amanda Campbell  @amanda_unite

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