The secret stranglehold

Who’s really at the heart of exploiting migrant workers?

Reading time: 7 min

Since 2019, migrants have been able to work in low-paid fruit and vegetable picking jobs in the UK through the UK’s Seasonal Worker Scheme. But it’s been mired in controversy ever since.

The government launched the scheme to address the labour shortages predicted following Brexit. But increasing the number of places on the scheme from 2,500 in 2019 to at least 45,000 in 2023/24 contradicts the government’s stated desire to reduce the UK’s reliance on migrant workers.

Many migrant workers are exploited from before they even arrive in the UK to work, thanks to brokers charging them thousands of pounds to assist with visa applications and flights.

And once they arrive, they are exploited with low pay, unacceptable working – and in many cases, living –  conditions, a recent Landworkers Alliance report, ‘Debt, Migration, and Exploitation’, outlines.

But this exploitation of migrant seasonal workers is part of a much bigger picture. At the end of the chain, the UK’s biggest supermarket chains are driving down prices and working conditions, says Bev Clarkson, Unite’s national officer for food and agricultural members.

“Supermarkets are pushing down efficiencies through their supply chain, particularly in the agriculture sector,” she explains.

This means they’re cutting food producers’ margins, which is then pushed onto workers’ wages and working conditions. 

“Supermarkets go to manufacturers and squeeze costs dramatically,” Clarkson says. “It’s not because of the war in Ukraine or weather in Europe, it’s because they’re interested in shareholders and maximising profit for them. Supermarkets aren’t interested in consumers.”

These manufacturers are forced to agree to lower costs with supermarkets, Clarkson says.

“Supermarkets have a stranglehold, so if a manufacturer says no, they’ll go to someone else. They’re caught in a trap,” she says.

Manufacturers, she adds, then essentially do the same to their suppliers so that, ultimately, it falls to migrant workers picking the produce.

“We’re pretty certain that a lot of seasonal workers working in agriculture are undocumented migrants and quite a lot won’t be getting national minimum wage. They’re living in shared accommodation, which is another way the owners can make their money. It isn’t fit for anyone to live in,” Clarkson says.

Further up the food chain, workers at the manufacturer level are being exploited, too.

Monique Mosley is a Unite rep and operational trainer at food producer Greencore, where 82 per cent of the workforce is made up of migrant workers. “We have a massive turnover of staff,” she says.

Currently, two Greencore employers have a Skilled Work Visa, which cost them £625, according to Mosley, plus up to £624 per year to be able to use healthcare.

“All they get in exchange is a low paid factory job,” she says. “There are people on site who have to use foodbanks, and some are car-sharing because they can’t afford their own fuel anymore.”

Unite helped Greencore workers secure a pay increase of between 4.9 and 16.3 per cent, but Mosley says factory workers still earn ‘next to nothing’ compared to supermarkets. But Mosely isn’t just concerned about wages at Greencore – which made £5m turnover in the three months up to June this year.

“All the ingredients get brought to boil, and some go through a pasteuriser, so it’s incredibly hot, and it’s an old building.

Mosely – who has a photo of herself holding a temperature probe during a night shift that says 43.6oC – has worked with Greencore’s health and safety department to trial an air flow system in the hottest part of the factory.

Another growing issue for Mosely is the communication difficulties between her employer to her colleagues.

“When the bulk of the workforce was Polish, I only had to explain things to one or two people. But now that we get lots of different nationalities and not many speak English, when things need to be briefed to them, like safety information, there’s no way for them to understand,” she says.

“I worry that people are being left out. I’ve picked out union members who can translate, and use them regularly.”

The other issue with this language barrier is that employees aren’t aware of their legal rights.

“A lot of people don’t know they’re legally entitled to a break every 4.5 hours. People don’t always get told their rights because it’s not beneficial to the employer,” she says.

But Mosely has been instrumental in securing improvements for her colleagues, and is currently negotiating the terms of providing English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes.

“A lot of things are fairly easy to achieve if you focus, and I’ve got a lot of Unite members behind me I can call for support,” says Mosely, who has also secured a multifaith prayer room onsite.

“It’s hot, it’s loud, and the shifts are long – but that doesn’t mean it has to be a nasty place to work,” she says.

But without political intervention, Mosely’s hard work will continue to make incremental victories against economic forces, says Clarkson.

“Political intervention is the only way things will change, because supermarkets are so powerful,” she says.

“I don’t think we’ll get it from this government, because a lot of shareholders are also members of the Conservative Party, so we need a change of government for things to change.”

Industry and politics have enjoyed a long, close relationship – and supermarket chains are no exception. Earlier this year, Lord John Sainsbury, former chair of the supermarket chain, left £10m to the Conservatives in his will.

But Clarkson has had numerous discussions with Daniel Zeichner, shadow farming minister, who she says has agreed with her argument regarding the unbridled power of supermarket chains over prices, wages and working conditions for migrant workers.  

“I’d like to think that if and when we get a Labour government, he will pick this up,” she adds. “This supermarket stranglehold has to end.”


See reports at Landworkers’ Alliance and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

By Jessica Bradley