They pack 1 in 4 apples you buy in Britain's top supermarkets. But who are the people doing the work? Channel 4 News has been undercover at Britain's largest growing, packing and storage operation.
And what we discovered was nothing short of shocking.
At Nickle Farm in Kent, we found a small army of largely Romanian workers - lured here by a network of Romanian employment agencies who pass them on to one here in Britain called Pro-force.
Tonight Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer have all told Channel 4 News they have launched investigations. And one supermarket, Aldi, has suspended its orders. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has also launched an investigation into our findings.
Our undercover reporter experienced first hand the highly-pressured environment, with managers breathing down workers' necks to meet strict targets. And with many of them living in appalling conditions that they say are supplied by the agency they work for — and that some say aren't fit for animals.
The workers are here legally but new research shows that Britain has the lowest number of labour inspectors among similar EU countries and investigations are declining as budgets are cut.
The workers are told their accommodation will be deluxe, yet tonight's report will show images at one site used by Pro-Force of feces-encrusted toilets; soiled, sodden carpets; mold-infested walls and showers not fit for human use.
One couple tells the programme when they entered their caravan it smelled like a corpse.
'Like a ghetto'
"The first evening when I went in there you couldn't breathe, the smell was unbearable, you could have fainted. Like a ghetto. Like walking into a ghetto. They are not fit for humans."
Yet when they complained, they were told to leave if they weren't happy.
The worker said: "She said that other caravans were worse than the ones we lived in. She told us that ours was one of the best ones."
Up to 6 workers are squeezed into each caravan and made to pay £35 each a week in rent, giving the agency Pro Force additional revenue of as much as £20,000 a week. Pro Force denies this, saying that figure doesn't take into account the costs incurred in providing the accommodation.
On top of that, one Pro-Force manager filmed undercover tells the workers they must pay for gas and electricity, although Pro-Force told us it provides £5 of electricity for free each week.
And in addition, workers have to pay £5 a day for the shuttle bus that takes them to and from the field and pack house — again more potential income for Pro-Force.
Pro-Force supplies workers to the packing plant at Nickle Farm, which is run by FW Mansfield. In the pack house, we exposé aggressive bosses shouting at staff to work ever-harder. On one occasion, workers ask for a short break to have water.
We witness the boss threatening to throw them all out and replace them with other workers. "If you don't want to work I'm going to send this whole team home ok... and I'm going to get another people in."
One worker pipes up. "It's not about that people don't want to work. We just want to get some water, to breathe..."
Another worker tells us he feels they treated "like objects." They have to pack five bags of apples a minute, with bosses always pressing them to work faster. If the packers fail to meet their targets, the worker tells us they are disciplined, or simply left off the shift for the next day.
"They kick them off," the worker says.
'Push the guys'
One boss tells our undercover reporter: "You must understand how important it is to push the guys. There are only five people to manage but sometimes it's harder to manage five people than 30 people. Because you have to pressure."
In one incident, a manager reveals: "I had such a problem today. Sixteen people called me yesterday saying that they're sick because of this pack house." We're later told by one of the workers the air conditioning unit had been leaking fumes but the bosses had not allowed the workers to leave until the end of their shift.
"Yes it's like someone is pushing your head," the worker tells us. "They leave us...to stay there until they finish the order. The next day something like 15 or 16 people don't come to work because they feel sick."
Mansfield and Pro-Force told us that they did not receive any complaints about this incident. Pro-Force says only two people left their shift early and say the fumes were harmless condensation.
And all this under the eyes of Britain's biggest supermarkets, who all use the farm in Kent to source their fruit. We're told that when the supermarkets come to do their audits, the work lines are deliberately slowed down and the place is cleaned up, something both firms deny.
Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer have all launched investigations. And one supermarket Aldi — has suspended its orders.
Brits 'unprepared' to work
One worker close to tears admits. "I didn't have the courage to tell my family back home about the conditions and what is happening here."
Some can't take it and leave. Yet 170,000 Romanians have come here this year alone looking to better their lives. And more will follow.
Perhaps what's most startling about our footage is the fact that the majority of workers are from Eastern Europe — despite the fact these farms are in Kent — the so-called Garden of England — and open to British workers in exactly the same way. British workers who often criticise migrants for coming to the UK and taking British jobs.
Yet all the Romanian workers we spoke to said that if British workers do sign up, they leave within days, unprepared to work under the types of conditions that they are forced to tolerate.
All of which leaves migrant workers potentially more open to exploitation.
Channel 4 News has learned that The Gangmasters Licensing Authority — which provides licenses to the employment agencies — is conducting an investigation into the agencies that supply Mansfields.
Neither the GLA, nor the supermarkets or the body — the British Retail Consortium — that represents them would agree to come on our programme this evening.
Matt Jarrett, managing director of Pro-Force, said: “Pro-Force operates in a highly regulated sector, and is under constant scrutiny by third party auditors, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Health & Safety Executive, HMRCand SEDEX, the “ethical watchdog” for the supermarkets. We are monitored continually, and have never failed any of the numerous unannounced audits carried out, demonstrating our best practice in all aspects of our business.
“We are therefore very disappointed that Channel 4 News has broadcast numerous and wide-ranging allegations of serious wrongdoing, despite Pro-Force having given them extensive evidence that its allegations were unfounded and its sources of information lacked credibility.
“When we were contacted by Channel 4 News with its claims, we informed them that the living conditions they described — we were not shown footage — bore no relation to the standards of the accommodation we supply, which is audited frequently by regulators as well as weekly by our welfare officers.
“Now we have seen the footage Channel 4 News has deployed to make its allegations, Pro-Force can confirm it is in fact a compilation of images of:
· a toilet and damaged wall from an old, disused porta-cabin that had been broken into;
· a surplus, disconnected sink in a caravan that was due for removal and which until recently only had a hairline fracture;
· and close up views of a couple of damp patches — common when vents are closed – in an otherwise clean and tidy caravan.
These must have been edited together to create the impression Channel 4 News clearly wanted to portray. It is not footage of a worker’s caravan, contrary to the assertions made by Channel 4 News.
“A further example of misrepresentation is the claim of workers suffering sickness from a “leaking” air conditioning unit. We gave Channel 4 News unambiguous evidence from the air conditioning engineer (who is not employed by Pro-Force or its client) that the fluid used in the system is non-toxic, that none escaped and that the mist was condensing air. Channel 4 News ignored this conclusive evidence that there could be no sickness from fumes.
“We adhere to all the legal standards governing our industry. However, Pro-Force strives to go beyond these, always looking for improvement in all areas. We have a number of ways for workers to report, anonymously, any problems with their working conditions or living arrangements. Our workers are our greatest asset, and we’re committed to ensuring they have a rewarding experience working with us.
“Despite this, we accept there are some areas we want to look into further — such as how staff are communicated with, how clearly they understand that, for example, overtime is optional. Should this uncover any area for improvement, we will rectify problems and review processes as necessary, in our ongoing efforts to be the leading labour provider in our field.
“Channel 4 News has not shown the typical experiences of our workers, 70% of whom are returnees, coming back to us year after year. That is a clear testament to our dedication to high welfare standards.”
Tommy Leighton [editor of PRODUCE BUSINESS UK] comments:“As I wrote in the original opinion piece, 'There is always an agenda at play when a programme is looking for news'. It is not any more useful or right for me to judge the standard of the journalism than the validity of the journalist’s claims at this stage, but if what Pro-Force has counterclaimed is true, then it is not just the industry that is left with a case to answer.”
I’m not going to pass premature judgement on what millions of viewers of Channel 4 News watched last night – as the programme said, customers Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose are investigating allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers at FW Mansfield’s Nickle Farm, and Aldi has already reportedly suspended orders from the UK’s largest fruit grower.
Click hereto watch the report and read the article that was written around the item on the C4 News website.
There is always an agenda at play when a programme is looking for news and the migrant worker story is guaranteed to resonate at this juncture. But whatever your view on undercover reporting, there was some pretty damning stuff aired. The emotive language is nothing new, but some of the images of the living accommodation were horrific.
If any of it is true, then there are a questions to answer for both Pro-Force, the recruitment agency that provides the workers for Nickle Farm and the temporary homes for many of those workers, and Mansfield’s.
If the living conditions are the direct responsibility of Pro-Force, worker welfare is also the responsibility of Mansfield’s and it must be said, its customers, who demand ultra-high service levels at low prices.
It’s interesting to note that the larger supermarkets, who rely on Mansfield’s for a large volume of English apples they perhaps couldn’t get elsewhere, are merely investigating at this stage, while Aldi, which won’t be buying anything like that volume, has apparently cut ties with immediate effect.
But what should buyers be asking themselves when something like this happens?
The potential damage to the reputation of your brand by association with this story is important, of course, as is in some cases the potential loss of value of your shares to your shareholders. Perhaps that is why Aldi has allegedly suspended orders.
Having to find somewhere else from which to source all that fruit to fill your shelves at a peak time for English apple sales is a huge problem (probably impossible as Mansfield’s is such a huge player) and English top-fruit is a major driver at this time of year. Not having that fruit would risk losing shoppers in the run-up to Christmas. Maybe this is the reason why the other trio are investigating rather than pulling out straight away.
It just may be because they see the bigger picture though. By suspending its orders – if indeed that happens to be true – it could be argued that Aldi would not be helping matters all that much. There was no implied food-safety issue; in fact the programme more than once said how efficiently the packhouse was running due to the stringent regime of the packhouse managers.
The real issue is worker welfare – and is it really helping those workers if you simply cut ties? The better course of action would be to support Nickle Farm through the process of clearing up whatever mess it might be in – ensuring that every single worker on the farm is being treated fairly and putting the checks and measures in place to further ensure that this continues in the long term. I don't know what Waitrose, M&S or Sainsbury’s are actually doing to investigate, but I’d imagine there is some desire to correct, rather than condemn.
It is easy to take the moral high ground and remove yourself from responsibility in situations like this. But buyers could do worse than look at what causes companies to tread the boundaries of fair play in the first place. Migrant workers are being paid the minimum wage to work long hours because the supermarket chains require efficiency levels that are by their nature extremely hard to attain for a produce company.
Could they pay a little more per kilo on the condition that this type of story never happens again? Too many English apples are sold on promotion anyway — the consumer is prepared to pay a fair price for home-grown fruit – and it wouldn’t take a wild flight of fancy for a retailer (or all retailers for that matter) to pay 5p or 10p extra a kilo and pass that on to customers by removing some of the price promotion, in order to oblige growers and gangmasters to invest more further down the line.
The British Retail Consortium refused to come on the programme to represent its members’ views, because, it said, the Gangmaster Licensing Authorityis involved in a wider investigation of the Romanian agencies that provide the workers to Pro-Force initially. Neither Pro-Force or Mansfield’s were represented directly on the show either.
So there were as many questions as answers and as I say, this is not a time to leap to conclusions, but clearly this is not a happy hour for the fruit industry. There was no suggestion that the quality of the product was being jeopardised, but shoppers care about the treatment of the workforce who pick and pack their fruit, and some of the images were there to shock — and did.
On the other side of the coin, the alleged over-pressurisation of workers in the packhouse looked bad in the context of the piece, but realistically, it wasn’t all that terrible. Workers in all sorts of industries are expected to work fast and hard throughout their shifts, and most of us will have experienced unpleasant management at some point in our lives – that’s not a crime.
Claims that Nickle Farm slows down its packing lines and cleans up more vigilantly when its customers come to audit sound a little unlikely, but again, let’s wait and see what the investigations decide.
I’d be surprised though if anyone who doesn’t work in the food industry watched the programme and was not at least a little disturbed. There were whispers around that this was coming. And other national news organisations have been sniffing around the produce industry as a fairly obvious target for news surrounding treatment of migrant workers.
All this as the nation wrings its hands over immigration and the focus remains on the scurrilous gangs overseas that are sending people into the UK with no due care for their wellbeing.
Obviously, the response is already being formulated. Unfortunately, as bad news goes, this is not an isolated case. It is only three months since Andrew Stocker was jailed for manslaughter after two workers died at the Hampshire fruit farm he managed, and this is another blow for the top-fruit sector.
The industry can look at the fact that margins are tight, expectations are high and the consequences for failure to hit performance targets are dire. I think the vast majority of us would agree, though, that whatever the pressures on a business and however attractive the options to cut corners, there will never be an acceptable excuse for mistreating fellow human beings.
It’s the National Fruit Showthis week, and this will obviously be the story on everyone’s lips. But in the interest of the domestic fruit industry, it would be far better if people at the production end too were to accept that when something like this surfaces, the whole industry has an issue to deal with, rather than go with the natural instinct, which is to distance oneself from what the nation has seen and insist that it couldn’t happen on your watch.
Paul Mansfield is one of the most successful British fruit growers in history, but it has allegedly happened on his.
All these pieces raise many questions. Is this true? If it is true, to what extend is it representative? And then, finally, how do we make things better?
This particular report seems very problematic. The reporters allow a person whose credibility has not been vetted to show their home movie on TV. How do the reporters know that is accurate?
Beyond that, the facts of the matter don’t really jibe with the implication the reporters are making. It is not contested that the workers can leave any time they want. So that implies that the situation is better than any alternative they have.
Aldi so quickly disassociating itself seems questionable as well. We once wrote a piece about child labor in a blueberry farm in Michigan. The piece was titled When Child Labor Laws Don’t Necessarily Help Children. Everyone was quick to denounce what was really just parents keeping their children with them, but nobody was coming up with money to send these kids to summer camp or a school.
Yes, the pictures of dirty sinks and so forth are arresting, but we actually don’t know if they are accurate representations of this site much less that they accurately represent the industry.
As for the rest, being pushed to work hard, etc. – it is not at all clear that this is abusive or even a problem.
After all, when the workers said they wanted water, the big tough boss gave them a ten minute break.
Are these prize seeking journalists willing to cut the cloth to the shape they want to have? We don’t know. But one has to be careful, if we price labor in the UK out of range, then the apples will all be imported from places with worse labor conditions – who benefits then?