English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow has defended the sector in light of claims made by a Channel 4 News report into working conditions at FW Mansfield & Son, one of the UK's largest fruit packers.
Speaking to HW at last week's National Fruit Show, Barlow said the programme was "not helpful", adding: "All growers are familiar with the demands of the law and go out of their way to comply with them. There was no suggestion on the programme that workers were being paid less than the national minimum wage. There is a fine balance between availability and demand for labour that puts enormous pressure on growers."
On accusations in the programme, aired on Monday 19 October, that workers faced the sack for not meeting tough productivity targets, he said: "By telling them up front what their targets are in terms of output, it lets them know what they will earn. If they don't meet those targets, Acas (the Government's Advisory, Conciliation & Arbitration Service) has laid down procedures including retraining, but if they still don't meet those levels it's the same as any business - they can say 'there isn't a place for you'. Otherwise those workers are being subsidised by the good ones."
He added: "Companies are being regularly audited, some as often as every two-to-three weeks during the season, across ethics, accommodation and health and safety. The industry is already under enormous scrutiny."
The report used an undercover reporter working for labour suppler Pro-Force who was placed with the Kent grower and packer for several UK supermarkets. It claimed to show dirty and unhygienic conditions, which the mainly Romanian workers were housed in - shared caravans that cost £30-£35 per person per week.
Another worker employed in the grower's fields said the caravan he lived in at its Nickle Farm site had no heating or running water, despite official guidelines stipulating these utilities.
It also claimed that as well as strict productivity targets workers were not allowed breaks during shifts, while according to one worker the packhouse was cleaned and work rate slowed during routine inspections by supermarket customers. Mansfield's has since said that it operates an "audit-ready standard at all times". It did not respond to requests to comment further.
Romanian labour agencies also investigated
Channel 4 also investigated the Romanian agencies that supplied labour to Pro-Force. But Pro-Force said its has since stopped using such agencies and has taken recruitment in-house, with plans to set up its own offices in Romania and Bulgaria in time for next season.
Since transmission, Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer have all launched investigations, while Waitrose and Aldi have suspended orders from Mansfield's. Waitrose said in a statement: "We are taking these allegations very seriously and immediately arranged an unannounced independent audit of this site, as well as a visit by senior members of our own team."
The Government's Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) is believed to be investigating Pro-Force, as well as the Romanian agency involved. It said: "This is very much an active inquiry, which began some time before we were approached by Channel 4 and, as such, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage." The Recruitment & Employment Confederation, of which Pro-Force is a member, has also launched an investigation.
Pro-Force point to successful audit record
Pro-Force managing director Matt Jarrett said: "We are monitored continually, and have never failed any of the numerous unannounced audits carried out," adding that Pro-Force "had given Channel 4 extensive evidence that its allegations were unfounded and its sources of information lacked credibility". He also said the footage shown of accommodation was "not footage of a worker's caravan" and "bore no relation to the standards of the accommodation we supply".
Jarrett also said Channel 4 News ignored conclusive evidence that there could be no sickness from fumes emitted by an air conditioner in the packhouse, as claimed in the report. "We accept there are some areas we want to look into further - such as how staff are communicated with and how clearly they understand that, for example, overtime is optional." The fact that 70 per cent of its workers are returnees "is a clear testament to our dedication to high welfare standards", he added.
The programme "is bound to have some effect", said Terry Crosswell, employer services manager at specialist labour provider Concordia. "It's about what it does to the reputation of the industry. It will strengthen the view of those that say bad things are going on and that we need a strong regulatory framework. It's not onerous, we can see why it's there. We have established a good reputation over a long period of time and want a level playing field. But people complain that those who do it in the right way are a sitting target, while those who are less ethical are under the radar of the GLA, who have very limited resources."
Referendum - Employers awaiting detail on potential EU decoupling
"The EU referendum is in the back of employers’ minds though they find it difficult to see what it will all mean," said Concordia’s Terry Crosswell. Neither side of the campaign has so far provided much detail on how much decoupling from Europe they are seeking, he added.
"Much of the ‘out’ campaign comes from an anti-immigration point of view. But the referendum itself is still 15-18 months away, and any withdrawal won’t be for another two years after that, so almost at the end of this parliament."
"In the shorter term there will still be plenty of workers coming across [from Eastern Europe] because the strength of the pound is in their favour, with wages likely to rise further next year under the living wage plans. But they have more opportunities in the wider economy so are more likely to move on. The sector has to make sure it stays attractive enough to retain them, or they may become scarce anyway."