Labour abuse: pleading ignorance may no longer be enough

All businesses should take warning after threats of tough action to tackle the shocking scale of exploitation. By Nick Hughes.

Abuse of labour is not an issue that makes the daily agenda of most companies. But every so often a story breaks that makes even the most reputable business ask: “Could this happen to me?”

The Guardian’s 2014 scoop about Asian slave labour producing prawns for UK supermarkets was memorable not just because of how shocking it was but for the extent to which it jarred with the image of the food system the industry likes to project.

But are labour abuses in the food supply chain really as rare as most of us would like to believe?

The extent of labour exploitation and slavery in modern-day Britain was laid bare last month in a report by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the body which licenses labour providers in agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering, processing and packaging.

The report identified common abuses and exploitative practices across a range of sectors, including foodservice, agriculture and food processing.

In foodservice, the GLAA found evidence of wages as low as £10 per shift, with some employees working up to 15 hours a day. Living and working conditions are often described as poor where accommodation is provided by employers, with some workers reporting having slept on floors. A small number of workers reported being moved between connected locations, which the report notes is a possible indicator of human trafficking.

In agriculture, the GLAA found evidence of seasonal workers, often from Romania or Bulgaria, being housed in “horrific” conditions, with farm workers expected to live in overcrowded and unsanitary accommodation. It found some examples of supervisors being abusive and workers being subjected to physical assault.

And in food processing, the GLAA heard reports of criminal groups trafficking foreign nationals into the UK for the purpose of providing labour. It also cites examples of workers being offered unstructured shift work and supervisors promising jobs and overtime in return for bribes and sexual favours.

Businesses at the consumer end of the supply chain might argue – with some legitimacy – that they cannot be expected to know what goes on three or four steps removed from their own direct operations. But ignorance may not prove a reasonable defence for too much longer.

Last month, the UK’s director of labour market enforcement, David Metcalf, presented to parliament his United Kingdom Labour Market Enforcement Strategy 2018/19.

In it, he estimates that 342,000 jobs were paid below the “national living wage” in 2017; £4.5 billion is misappropriated from agency workers annually; and between 10,000 and 13,000 workers are potential victims of modern slavery.

To help remedy the situation, Metcalf makes a number of recommendations to the government including improving complaints channels, providing better information on employee rights, and refining the systems and processes for intelligence sharing.

Of most interest to food businesses, however, will be Metcalf’s recommendations concerning the supply chain. He says that to help ensure compliance, measures should be introduced where the brand at the top of the supply chain bears joint responsibility for any non-compliance further down. What’s more, failure to correct the infringement could ultimately result in the public naming and shaming of both the brand and its supplier.

Metcalf also says that provisions should be made to enable the temporary embargo of “hot goods” to disrupt supply chain activity where non-compliance is found, at a considerable potential cost to business.

Industry has publicly welcomed Metcalf’s conclusions. The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS), which represents the supply chain profession, says it “wholeheartedly supports” the recommendation to place embargoes on goods produced by exploited workers and to name businesses which fail to act when abuses are discovered.

The CIPS director, Cath Hill, says that how the government chooses to respond to the recommendations will say a lot about the country we want to be after Brexit. “We could use our greater trade freedom to shop around the world for the biggest bargains no matter the human cost; or, as Mr Metcalf suggests, we could lead the global fight against exploitation and modern day slavery, wherever it occurs.”

The CIPS itself has repeatedly warned that there are many reasons to think supply chain costs will increase as result of Brexit.

At the same time, competitive pressures mean businesses throughout the food sector are striving to squeeze every ounce of efficiency out of their operations.

In his report, Metcalf is clear that business models built around cost reduction risk compromising labour standards.

Companies taking a laissez-faire approach to supply chain labour should take heed of his desire to name and shame offenders.

In future cases of abuse, it may not be the workers alone who suffer the cost.

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