The high human cost of some Scottish farm produce
WITH the warmer weather finally heralding the onset of summer, supermarket shelves across the country are beginning to fill up with juicy, locally grown strawberries.
But there are mounting concerns that a number of foreign workers who pick the fruit are paying a high human cost. The Scotsman can today reveal the exploitation suffered by some eastern Europeans working on farms and in food-processing factories in Scotland.
An investigation last year revealed that more than 2,000 workers in Angus were living in uncertified accommodation. In one alarming case, ten people had been squeezed into a single room; in another, an old chicken shed had been used as a communal lounge for up to 160 workers. Even though many of the farms examined last summer now meet health and safety standards, there are fears many workers will face a similar situation this summer.
Elsewhere, inspectors have uncovered a catalogue of abuses at the hands of labour providers, or "gangmasters", some of whom are earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year through charges imposed on workers, including for accommodation and transport.
Strenuous efforts are now being made by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), local councils and fire brigades to clean up a hitherto largely unregulated industry.
Some 137 licences have been issued to gangmasters in Scotland – who supply more than 7,000 migrant workers – since a national crackdown began 18 months ago. While many of them are meeting their legal obligations to workers, a significant number are not.
Nearly one-third have been cautioned by the GLA for breaching the law, while a small number of applications have been refused and several gangmasters have had their licences revoked.
The worst examples of exploitation by gangmasters in the agricultural sector include a Lithuanian woman whose wages for one week, after deductions, amounted to minus 1.92.
In extreme cases, migrant workers have been found to be receiving less than 1 an hour over a full working week.
This summer, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 migrant workers will be employed in Scotland's agriculture and food-processing industries.
Licensed gangmasters act as employment agents for farmers who, for a fee, are relieved of having to source workers and sort out the tax, national insurance and other employment issues. The workers are paid by the gangmaster, minus deductions.
But many other employees are provided by unregulated, unlicensed gangmasters, whose exploitation of foreign workers filling a gaping hole in the domestic labour market is only now coming to light.
Inspectors from the GLA have been shocked by some of the conditions migrant workers have had to endure.
Ian Japp, the GLA's head of investigations in Scotland, said some of what he had seen "made me shudder".
He said: "Workers were obviously being charged huge sums of money for both accommodation and transport, which brought their pay down to a very small amount.
"If my son was going to work on a farm in another country, would I want him to stay in some of the accommodation I have encountered? The answer is no."
The GLA has also discovered workers' lives are being put at risk by the use of unlicensed and dangerous minibuses used to take them to farms. Vans fitted with benches, and with no seatbelts, are being driven by unqualified drivers.
Other abuses of migrant workers in Scotland include tampering with time sheets to bypass minimum wage legislation, and the seizing of passports.
The GLA discovered one eastern European woman working in a North-east chicken processing factory who was receiving a gross weekly wage of 196.95. Tax and national insurance claimed 28.88 of that. But the gangmaster then charged a further 60 for rent and 70 in "work permit fees", leaving her with 38.07 – less than 1 an hour.
The Scotsman can reveal the situation has become so serious that a number of foreign diplomats have voiced serious concerns to MSPs and inspectors.
Professor Nikolai Zhelev, the honorary consul for Bulgaria in Scotland, is calling on the Scottish Government to introduce new laws to protect migrant workers.
He said: "The number of cases of exploitation of eastern European migrant workers is alarming. Scotland is generally a fair country. Most people are concerned about exploitation abroad, so it is surprising to find so much exploitation in your backyard. We talk about fair trade coffee from South America – we should be talking about fair trade berries from Scotland."
Prof Zhelev said he had inspected several farms in Angus and Perthshire that are employing foreign labour provided by gangmasters.
"In the worst case, a Bulgarian girl was working on a farm for a month. After paying her expenses, she still owed 18," he said.
"The national minimum wage sometimes is not paid, as gangmasters are tampering with time sheets. Someone who worked ten hours is maybe only being paid for five.
"I have seen eight people living in a caravan, with 30 people using a single toilet. Lives are at risk, and lives have already been taken."
One of those to lose his life was Petr Adamnik, from the Czech Republic, who died in April last year when fire swept through three caravans at Birkhill Farm, near Arbroath, where a number of migrant workers had been employed.
His death prompted officials from Angus Council to inspect 21 sites, accommodating about 1,800 migrant workers, in the area.
Workers were housed in caravans, portable cabins, converted steadings or a combination of all three. None of the accommodation met all the guidelines already agreed by the industry.
An Angus Council spokeswoman said they had been working with farms to ensure they were safe.
She said: ''The council endeavours to visit all migrant worker accommodation in the agricultural sector that it is aware of, and continues to work with accommodation providers to inform them of the standards required.''
The supermarket chain Asda has also said it will carry out emergency checks on one Angus farmer after The Scotsman notified it of fire officers' concerns over the standard of accommodation.
Colin Shepherd, Tayside Fire and Rescue Service's district enforcement officer, who mapped out the Angus farms that accommodate migrant workers in caravans and portable buildings, wonders how long eastern European workers will put up with such appalling conditions.
"You can't be surprised there's a lack of European workers," he said. "Not even the worst hotels or B&Bs could get away with this."
It is estimated up to 25,000 migrant workers are living in accommodation not certified as safe under "houses of multiple occupancy" regulations.
Steve Herron, the legislative fire safety manager for Tayside Fire and Rescue, who has visited several sites, said: "The standard of accommodation we've encountered has, in some cases, been truly appalling.
"They are coming into the country and staying, say, for the daffodil season, then they move on to berries and maybe planting crops, living in these conditions so they can send money home.
"They are visitors to this country, but gangmasters are asking them to live in accommodation you wouldn't expect someone's dog to live in."
He added: "Our migrant workers are a key factor to the economic future of this region. The safety of these people, both in terms of accommodation and mistreatment by gangmasters, reflects badly on our reputation as a welcoming place."
Supermarket giant promises supply review
SUPERMARKET giant Asda is launching a review into how strawberries supplied to its stores in Dundee are harvested, after questions were posed by The Scotsman.
The supermarket sells fresh fruit supplied by Well Pict Scotland as part of its campaign to support local farms.
This week, the supermarket told The Scotsman it was "not aware of any allegations against Asda of exploitation in Scotland".
But the Health and Safety Executive was contacted by Angus Council last June about the case of Woodside Farm in Colliston, Arbroath, because the 20 portable buildings, each accommodating eight migrant workers, were on a "very poor site".
Concerns voiced by fire and rescue officers included: a communal facility housed in a chicken shed, no roadways, paths or lighting on portable building sites, no proper drainage for the showers and power cables left exposed on surface of ground.
The farmer, Andrew Cranston, told The Scotsman he has since made changes to the accommodation.
Mr Cranston, whose farm is part of the Well Pict Scotland company, says he uses a gangmaster and pays his strawberry pickers the "average agricultural wages" of 5.52 per hour base rate and 8.27 for time and half.
He said: "We closed down the chicken shed because it was unsuitable, in the eyes of the fire and rescue service.
"The power cables have been buried, we have put up street lighting, and paving-ways have been laid down.
"We are working on the drainage." The HSE said it had handed the case back to the council, which was unable to supply The Scotsman with more details.
An Asda spokesman said: "We have a zero tolerance approach to anything untoward.
"The farm in question passed a health and safety audit in February this year and has full fire, health and safety and electrical certificates in place to back this up.
"Even so, we will now be visiting the site next week to carry out a full audit."
But a draft protocol being drawn up by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority will not be signed up to for at least the next eight weeks.
It requires major supermarkets to submit to unannounced site inspections and provide evidence of supply-chain audits for things like pay and accommodation
Stores also say they are covered by the Ethical Trading Initiative. However, the ETI does not legislate for people on temporary contracts such as migrant-worker fruit pickers.
Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "I do not think supermarkets do know what happens outside the supply chains they control. It is convenient for them because they want to drive down prices."
licensed gangmasters in Scotland
workers declared on applications of Scotland's gangmasters
estimated migrant workers employed in agriculture and food processing every year
cautions issued to gangmasters in Scotland for breaching regulations
applications refused and licenses revoked in Scotland
minimum wage that must be paid to all migrant workers
Typical price of a punnet of strawberries
The average amount a farmer will pay the worker for each punnet picked
successful prosecution since gangmaster laws were introduced in October 2006
investigations currently being carried out by the GLA in Scotland
maximum number of years years a gangmaster can be jailed for breaking new laws.
A FORMER drugs squad detective is leading efforts to weed out illegal gangmasters in Scotland.
Ian Japp, previously head of Grampian Police's drug squad, retired after 30 years' service and took up his post with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) two years ago.
He leads a team of GLA investigators covering Scotland and the north of England.
As a chief inspector, he was involved in prosecuting a high-profile gangmaster case. Ukrainian Victor Solomka made millions of pounds supplying illegal workers to fish factories in the North-east.
After the conviction, Mr Japp said Solomka had exploited the workers "mercilessly without concern or compassion".
When Solomka arrived in Britain as an asylum seeker in 2000, he was so poor that he had elastic bands round his shoes.
Three years later, he had an expensive home in Norfolk, and Mercedes cars. He was jailed for seven years for money laundering and conspiring to breach immigration laws.
New rules after Morecambe Bay
THE Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was formed two years ago to protect vulnerable workers after the Morecambe Bay tragedy, in which 23 Chinese cockle pickers were drowned.
The GLA runs and enforces a licensing scheme for the UK's estimated 1,000 to 4,000 gangmasters. Those who supply labour to others temporarily or permanently have to obtain a licence to ensure pay and conditions are lawful.
The scheme covers labour providers in agriculture, horticulture, forestry, shellfish gathering and food and drink processing and packaging.
To receive a licence, they have to prove they fulfill a range of legal duties, including paying at least the minimum wage, providing holiday pay and meeting health and safety requirements.
Only reasonable charges can be levied against workers. Debt-bonding – where they have to pay to leave a job – is outlawed.
The maximum penalty for operating without a licence is ten years in jail and an unlimited fine. It is illegal to source workers from unlicensed gangmasters.
Gangmasters with a turnover of more than 10 million are charged 10,000 for a licence. At the other end of the scale, those earning less than 1 million pay 400. One-off inspection fees range from 1,850 to 2,900.
The GLA recommends gangmasters should earn about 50p per worker per hour – 400 a week for one supplying 20 workers. It suggests charges of 30 to 40 a week for accommodation, and 4 for transport. Even modest increases in these charges can generate hundreds of pounds in extra profit.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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