Supermarkets’ low prices in Global North countries such as the UK are the result of low wages paid to food and farmworkers in the Global South. This model of exploitation is replicated in the Global North among marginalised workers who have migrated from poorer Global South countries.
In the EU, more than a third of horticultural crops (cultivation of fruits and vegetables), and almost half of its fruit, comes from labour-intensive farms from Italy and Spain that employ exploited seasonal and foreign workers, usually from the Global South, who are often undocumented, with few legal rights and little protection in the countries they work in.
The UK relies on trade deals to bring in cheap produce as part of its post-Brexit trade strategy, such as the recently signed Morocco deal (2019), while growing only 58% of food consumed in the country.
According to 2021 statistics from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the leading foreign suppliers of food consumed in the UK were countries from the EU (23%), Africa (5%), Asia (4%), North America (4%) and South America (4%). At the same time, the agricultural and food processing sectors in the UK employ a workforce composed mostly of foreign workers.
Workers in labour-intensive UK sectors such as horticulture and meat processing face high levels of exploitation and deregulation, particularly in England. Since the abolition of the English Agricultural Wages Board in 2013, the exploitation of foreign workers has increased: farmworkers in England do not have statutory protection for their pay and conditions, whereas Scotland and Wales have retained their agricultural wages boards, and foreign workers in these countries still receive statutory protection. Foreign workers in England are therefore left more exposed to “low wages and poor conditions in a system where markets do not value agricultural workers as vital contributors to our food chain.”
In 2021, across the UK 99% of seasonal workers in horticulture came from outside the country, and 62% of those employed in meat processing were EU nationals.
Foreign workers are the backbone of the UK’s food supply chain, without whom the UK food system would all but collapse, yet they face rampant labour exploitation. Research by the University of Nottingham surveyed nearly 500 Bulgarian and Romanian workers employed across the UK agrifood industry. It found that foreign workers face abuse, exploitation, and debt; a situation which has grown worse since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nearly a fifth of those surveyed reported emotional abuse or threats at work, with 11% saying they had not been issued payslips, a work contract, or a P45 form (which includes salary and taxes paid to date once the employment contract is over). One in ten were paid below the minimum wage, while 7% reported not being allowed to take
holiday, not receiving any holiday pay if they did, and having wages withheld. One in ten paid a fee to an individual, agency or employer to secure their job, despite the practice being illegal in the UK and in their home countries. Because of this, resear
chers believe that such experiences of exploitation are significantly under-reported.
The UK trade union Unite has been organising foreign workers in the British agricultural and food sector for years, an issue that has long been a challenge because of the transient nature of the workforce – but which is seeing positive results.
Organising foreign workers in UK food industries has become increasingly important since the UK government’s post-Brexit introduction of the seasonal worker visa scheme, which Unite believes renders foreign workers more vulnerable to exploitation. Whereas previously workers from EU countries came to the UK under EU freedom of movement, the UK’s seasonal worker visa scheme is tied to jobs; if a worker loses their job, they lose their right to work in the UK. Consequently, workers are less likely to report abuse or exploitation, for fear of being sacked.
In 2022, a joint investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) exposed how fruit pickers from Nepal on seasonal migrant worker visas were illegally charged thousands of pounds by recruitment agencies to work on UK farms. The investigation highlighted how the UK government body tasked with licensing labour providers and protecting vulnerable and exploited workers, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), is poorly funded and lacking the resources required to tackle rising exploitation under the new visa scheme.
The Guardian and BIJ noted that the UK Home Office’s funding for the GLAA was a mere £7 million in 2021, less than the Home Office spent on publications, stationery and printing.
In 2021, the UK government announced an expansion of the visa scheme as part of its National Food Strategy yet failed to consult Unite, or any other trade union, despite Unite representing over 100,000 workers in the food, drink, and agriculture sector. Unite has expressed grave concerns that without any additional funding for labour rights enforcement or changes to the visa scheme to protect foreign workers, any expansion of the scheme will only further undermine pay and terms and conditions in a sector that is already rife with low wages and exploitation.
The UK government’s strategy was based on an initial review carried out across 2020 to 2021 by Leon chain restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby, the first of its kind since wartime rationing 75 years ago. What was supposed to be a significant and historic review of the UK’s food system fell short after it failed to adequately highlight the contributions or issues faced by the food sector workforce. In the 275-page review, there was barely any mention of jobs, workers or employment.
Organising and unionising are key strategies to resist the exploitation of workers in the food and agricultural sector. Unite has been actively working to improve the working conditions and pay of workers in this sector, particularly foreign workers. One of the ways Unite is achieving this is by providing direct support and advice to foreign workers to ensure they are aware of their employment rights. They have also taken steps to expose labour abuses in the sector and calling for changes to the visa scheme to better protect foreign workers. By empowering workers and giving them a voice to resist exploitation, unions like Unite are playing a critical role in advocating for better working conditions and pay for the workers sustaining the UK food system, as the government shows little interest in protecting these workers.