Vineyard fruit picker worker

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The supply chains of most British grocers – including Tesco, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op, were all linked to alleged abuse claims

Over half of migrants in the UK who are at risk of labour abuse work in food supply chains, according to a new report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Data showed 56% of recorded abuse against migrant workers in Britain occurred in agriculture, fishing, processing and packaging, as well as on the grocery shop floor – including incidents of racism, wage theft and threats of unfair dismissal.

Failures in the UK’s visa system supplying workers to different sectors of the food industry had also led to “egregious human rights violations” against migrant labourers, the BHRRC said.

The government’s post-Brexit Seasonal Worker scheme has come under scrutiny this year for multiple reported cases of illegal recruiting practices as well as debt bondage once migrants arrive in the UK to work.

Some of the recruitment agencies on the scheme have since been struck over links to modern slavery practices.

Read more: Seasonal worker scheme failures mean many migrant workers won’t return

“The workers who harvest, process and pack our food are regarded as essential workers. Yet, instead of being recognised for their value, they are subjected to a range of human rights abuses – often facilitated by lax government regulations and permitted to continue by multinationals at the top of supply chains, who are failing to monitor, investigate and remedy abuse sufficiently,” said BHRRC senior migrant rights researcher Isobel Archer.

Data recorded between 1 December 2022 and 30 November 2023 provided a “concerning” snapshot of how migrants working to put food on the shelves of UK supermarkets had been mistreated, according to the BHRRC.

Exploitation was most commonly reported on agriculture and livestock farms (27 cases), with the supply chains of most British grocers – including Tesco (eight cases), Lidl (four), Morrisons (three), Sainsbury’s (three), and the Co-op (three) – all linked to alleged abuse claims.

The most common abuse affecting farmworkers in the UK was excessive and illegal fee-charging during the recruitment and visa application process, reported in 12 cases (44%). In some cases, this led to workers being left in debt and returning home out of pocket, the BHRRC said.

Wage theft or poverty wages exacerbated the situation, cited by workers in one in four cases of abuse.

One recent case saw a Chilean female worker file a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against grower Haygrove over unfair dismissal, reduction of wages, discrimination and harassment.

Other common abuses were intimidation, reported in 10 cases (37%) and precarious or unsuitable living conditions in nine cases (33%). This included a lack of heating and unhygienic bathroom facilities.

The labour rights organisation said it believed the scope and scale of abuse to be “much higher” than the figures indicated due to a lack of access to remedy and grievance mechanisms by migrant workers, as well as the threat of reprisal for workers who said they were afraid to speak up.

It urged supermarkets at the top of supply chains to undertake rigorous human rights due diligence to identify and mitigate risks to their migrant workforce.

Read more: Can seasonal workers be protected from abuse?

Earlier this year, British retailers pledged to fund stricter audits of the UK-based recruitment companies licensed to hire seasonal labourers to their farms.

“Throughout 2023 the engagement rate with BHRRC from supermarkets has been high – we welcome continued transparency,” Archer said.

“However, migrant workers urgently need more: proactive monitoring of conditions for supply chain workers and steps to reimburse workers for debt accrued through fee-charging – steps that are well within the reach and know-how of these companies.

“Supermarkets must realise it’s simply not enough to publish general labour rights policies; they need to recognise specific vulnerabilities for UK-bound farmworkers and fishers and urgently respond to them by adopting tailored and migrant worker-centric risk assessment, due diligence and remedy processes.

“It is high time businesses recognise the consequence of their inaction and lack of safeguards – and they must believe workers. There is still some way to go if they want to be credited with taking their human rights responsibilities seriously.”