UK supermarkets are funding farm audits to prevent worker exploitation

The UK’s leading supermarkets have formed a task force that will fund independent audits on UK farms after investors urged food retailers to eliminate the risk of worker exploitation in their supply chains.

The move of grocers such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Ocado and Waitrose follows widespread reports that Asian farm workers came to the UK after paying exorbitant fees to recruitment agencies in their home countries, effectively working to pay off debts.

The grocers told suppliers last week they will fund audits of UK-based recruitment firms licensed to hire seasonal workers, which will include interviews with farm workers, the Financial Times said in a letter.

Stronger Together, the ethical recruitment group that led the audit process, confirmed that the aim is to assess the recruitment process by UK agencies and their counterparts abroad, rather than conditions on the farms themselves.

The supermarkets, which also include Aldi, Co-op, Asda and Morrisons, said in their letter that “the task force is working to develop and implement concrete measures to mitigate the risk of worker exploitation” and “the to improve the well-being of workers”.

The controversy over migrant agricultural workers has put pressure on British companies and the government as they face shortages of foreign labour. Growers who have historically relied on temporary workers from Europe have been forced to look further east after Brexit and since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Activists have warned workers from Nepal and Indonesia, who accounted for 18 per cent of seasonal workers in 2022 by August, would struggle to repay loans they took out after being billed thousands of pounds by recruiters in their home countries .

As a result, UK recruiters for the seasonal worker scheme have now ruled out hiring workers from these Asian countries, adding to the risk of labor shortages this year.

Bar chart of the number of seasonal workers by nationality, showing arrivals from outside Europe surge during the Ukraine war

In December, investors with $800 billion in assets demanded

This followed a report by the independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, which found the government “did not act promptly or seriously” when workers reported “serious concerns”.

Debt bondage is recognized by the International Labor Organization as an indicator of forced labor and recruitment fees are opposed by UN principles endorsed by the UK.

Supermarkets’ efforts “cannot and should not replace the government’s role,” said Andy Hall, an independent activist who has campaigned on issues surrounding the seasonal workers scheme.

“The fact [that the private sector is arranging audits] is a good response to government inaction.” However, he added that his focus is “remediation”. [of former workers]“.

Sophie De Salis, Sustainability Policy Advisor at the British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, said retailers “are committed to upholding high standards of well-being for all people working in their supply chains”.

However, she said supermarkets need government and licensed recruiter intervention to address the “systemic challenges in the design, operation and enforcement of the seasonal worker scheme” and to “better protect workers who are vulnerable to illegal recruitment fees”.

A government spokesman said the welfare of workers “is always of paramount importance to us”. They added that the government works closely with licensed recruiters, “who are responsible for ensuring the welfare of migrant workers, preventing zero-hour contracts and managing the overseas recruitment process.”

They said the government will “always act decisively” when these recruiters fail to meet their conditions. UK supermarkets are funding farm audits to prevent worker exploitation

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