Foreign worker drive exposes risk of exploitation and organised crime, fears employment agency

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/GF days
Image: Getty/GF days

Related tags Recruitment AI Farm

With fruit and vegetable pickers being flown into the UK on specialist charter jets to plug farm work gaps, one company is highlighting the importance of protecting these workers from the risk of exploitation.

According to Wagecorp, a payroll company specialising in foreign workers in the UK and Ireland, the issue of workforce protection from exploitation is pertinent as the COVID-19 pandemic highlights worker shortages within the agricultural sector. 

“Our aim is to help educate and direct overseas agencies, and to carry out compliance checks to make sure the workers are coming from a reputable individuals and companies and not from potential unwanted sources​,” Wagecorp’s managing director, Andrew Cronin, told FoodNavigator. 

In light of the coronavirus pandemic creating a shortage of seasonal labour on UK farms, the UK farming industry and government launched the ‘pick for Britain’ campaign. It aims to recruit up to 70,000 British workers to harvest fruit and vegetables in time for the summer season in May.  But it’s feared there won’t be enough British workers to fill all vacancies. 

After warnings from the Country Land & Business Association that travel restrictions owing to COVID-19  were hindering movement of workers from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria – where the bulk of workers who have traditionally harvested the UK’s fruit and veg crop originate -- British farmers are being forced to fly in workers from Eastern Europe on specialist charter jets.

Due diligence critical in current climate 

Cronin said it was likely that the number of workers needed to cover the jobs that would normally be undertaken by seasonal workers in the UK could reach up to 90,000. The UK Government has classified food supply workers as 'key workers’, which will ease the burden. But there is still a long way to go to fill all the vacancies. Meanwhile, standards risked slipping in this feverish environment, he warned, specifically the protection of workforce and prevention of exploitation, and the importance of ensuring fair pay for those arriving to work in the UK. 

“We are aware that cultures differ between countries and the United Kingdom​,” he said. “One clear example of risk would be a person charging workers from a village to find people work in the UK, and by doing so introducing the workers to an agency who then charges the labour user in the UK for supplying the worker, this isn’t something we would accept as workers are being charged to find work.”​                

The urgency surrounding the demand of workforce in the UK, he added, risked opening ‘avenues for potential circumvention and organised crime to try and work its way back in’. “That’s why labour suppliers and users need to be diligent in where they are obtaining workers from.”

It is vital for farms and factories to double check that their labour provider has a current Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) licence, he stressed, as some licenses may be revoked without the users knowing. (It is an offence to use an unlicensed labour provider.) The GLAA aims to protect workers from labour exploitation. The GLAA operates a licensing scheme to regulate businesses who provide workers to certain UK sectors. 

“The GLAA has worked tirelessly over the years to push out unwanted suppliers of workforce​,” noted Cronin. The GLAA license “gives reassurance to both the labour user and worker when choosing to work with us. It also ensures that areas of improvement are always being considered and reviewed.”

He added: "It's important for the labour users to make sure that the businesses they are dealing with, or wherever their workforce is from, comes from a reputable source ie a GLAA-licenced business,” ​he said. “With that, people who come to the UK are being protected as there's a clear set of standards to which we are having to follow in terms of workforce protection.”

The challenge of retention 

Wagecorp’s main source of workers are via agencies in Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary. These agencies supplying workers for the GLAA regulated industries, must be GLAA-licensed to supply workforce to the UK industries including processing and packaging of all fresh food, drinks and other produce, agriculture, horticulture and shellfish gathering. 

Currently, the company sources workers for the UK market, however its horizons include Ireland, Germany and Holland, where the problem of skills gaps in the agricultural sector is equally acute. 

Wagecorp as the employer is responsible for paying the workers after sourcing and supplying them to labour users – not the farm or factory where the staff end up. “We want to ensure that workers we deal with are being paid on time each week in a secure manner and being provided with payslips in their own languages which clearly detail the legal deductions being made,” ​explained Cronin. “We are also able to provide mediation should there be any issues with pay or disputes.”​  

Inspector visits to sites, meanwhile, mean health and safety and accommodation checks are carried out. These steps are important, he said, to ensure the pickers return for the next season's work and for longer-term retention of staff within the UK food and beverage industry. 

“Considering Brexit, I don’t agree that foreign workers who look after the UK industries should be deemed as low-skilled,”​ he pointed out. “I have been to inspect many farms and factories, and these workers have a talent and a skill which many people wouldn’t be able to do.”​ 

'Machines aren't ready' 

He added that technology – often seen as a panacea for farming’s recruitment problems – wasn’t necessarily the answer. 

“My daughter who is 18 months old can pick strawberries from my garden quite delicately, however for some reason regardless of the artificial intelligence that now exists, a machine doesn’t quite pass the test. There will remain barriers to automation, until such time as a machine has the ability to touch, feel and choose like a human. Machines are getting there, but they are still a long way off being ready, and when they are cost will be a major factor in their roll out.”

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