Investors are warning food companies of the dangers of forced labor on British farms
Investors with £800bn in assets have called on food retailers and the British government to eliminate the risks of debt bondage and forced labor on British farms, as concerns grow that the country’s immigration system exposes migrant workers to abuse.
Asset managers including Schroders, Sarasin & Partners and Quilter Cheviot have warned that the UK supply chain has become increasingly dependent on non-EU workers since Brexit and the Ukraine war, many of whom are working to pay off debt after paying excessive recruitment fees. . by agencies in their home country. Activists also reported unsafe housing, employers threatening workers with deportation, and workers finding themselves unable to leave their jobs.
They are writing to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and other companies to ask them to work with suppliers and ensure that these seasonal workers, many of whom have come from Asia, repay the millions they are estimated to have spent collectively securing jobs. There is no indication that the companies themselves, which include supermarkets and hospitality groups in which investors own shares, intentionally use forced labour.
The warnings add to the debate over how the UK should tackle a growing agricultural labor shortage. Tens of millions of pounds worth of fresh produce was left to rot in the fields over the summer.
On Friday, the government said it would increase the number of visas for seasonal workers by 50 percent to 45,000 in 2023, after businesses called on ministers to help ease a shortage. But campaigners say the poor design and oversight of the seasonal worker system, which was launched in 2019, exposes workers to abuse.
“You think about the World Cup and all the worries said Dame Sarah Thornton, former UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner and Adviser to the CCLA, the UK’s largest charity fund manager who is spearheading companies’ campaign to take action. What we get here is the risk of forced labor in the UK. We have to make sure our home is safe if we are going to criticize other countries.”
Others supporting the campaign include the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church and the Pension Protection Fund. Asset managers including M&G, Abrdn, Aviva, Lazard, Hermes and Columbia Threadneedle have been approached by the CCLA but have not signed on. All of them declined to comment.
CCLA CEO Peter Hugh Smith said the investor group hopes to get the companies to discuss the issue “on the board.” The group, which writes directly to supermarkets and hospitality companies such as Compass and Whitbread, is also calling on the government to bring the seasonal employment scheme in line with its international obligations on workers’ rights.
More than 3,500 of the 26,600 visas issued in the first half of the year went to workers from Indonesia and Nepal, countries campaigners say recruitment agencies routinely charge workers exorbitant fees, up from about 500 visas in 2021.
In total, human rights consultancy Impactt estimates that foreign workers have paid at least £35m to travel and secure temporary jobs in the UK in 2022, with Thornton adding that some have faced debts of up to £5,000. The International Labor Organization recognizes debt bondage as an indicator of forced labour, and the imposition of recruitment fees opposes the UK-backed UN Principles.
Lucila Granada, chief executive of the nonprofit Labor Exploitation Focus Group, said workers are promised a six-month hire, but sometimes arrive too late in the season to secure much work, leaving them struggling to provide room and board.
Andy Hall, a labor advocate, warned that some would be pushed to seek illegal work. He added that the impact of the seasonal employment scheme is “totally inconsistent” with the government’s ambition to clamp down on illegal immigration.
The Ministry of Interior said that the ministry is working to “prevent exploitation and clamp down on poor working conditions,” adding that it will “take action” if the violation is reported and proven.
It said private operators licensed by the government to bring seasonal workers to the UK were responsible for “ensuring the welfare of migrant workers, preventing zero contracts and managing the overseas recruitment process”.
The British Retail Confederation, which represents the country’s retailers, said businesses were “committed to supporting high levels of well-being”. The organization said it had prompted the creation of several “action groups” aimed at protecting seasonal workers. Compass, the world’s largest hospitality catering group, said it is committed to eliminating labor exploitation, adding that it investigates and suspends any supplier deemed to be violating its policies. Whitbread declined to comment.