Let’s go beyond the Horsemeat scandal – our food should be slavery free too

2:28 pm - February 19th 2013

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by Louise Woodruff

The current horsemeat scandal raises serious concerns about our food supply chains, as Fraser Nelson argued so well last week.

The same economic pressure to supply this food cheaply applies to the labour costs as well as to the cost of the raw material. There are serious questions about the complex nature of the supply chains and the conditions and experiences of those low-paid workers who produce, process and pack our food.  

We already know that migrant workers are being exploited in different parts of the food industry. The workers in our study told of:

  • paying upfront fees to work;
  • excessive workplace surveillance, including problems taking breaks;
  • overcrowded tied accommodation;
  • racism, threats and bullying;
  • fear of dismissal that ensured workers remained compliant; and
  • a range of infringements on pay. 

 Most of this exploitation was linked to informal gangmasters. Other evidence shows that long supply chains and high levels of subcontracting facilitate forced labour.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) conducted a wide-ranging Inquiry into the Meat and Poultry Processing Sectors.

The inquiry found there was widespread mistreatment of agency workers, especially pregnant and migrant workers. While progress has been made by the industry in a number of areas, EHRC points to several areas where problems persist: discrimination against agency workers, and workers not being able to feed in confidentially to ethical audits carried out by supermarkets.

The UK Human Trafficking Centre estimates that around 19 per cent of ‘trafficking for labour’ exploitation victims are in the food and processing and agriculture sectors.

These extremes of labour exploitation are thankfully only found in a small segment of the huge UK food industry. Indeed, the supermarkets have put in place a system of ethical auditing to inspect the workplaces of their suppliers and support the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which plays a vital role in tackling unscrupulous labour providers.

However, as the evidence, plus cases like that recently exposed in Kent show, there remains a serious problem.

This horsemeat scandal should act as a catalyst for retailers and caterers to re-examine their supply chains, to ensure our food is not only safe to eat, but also slavery-free.

Louise Woodruff manages the Forced Labour programme at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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Reader comments

The fact is our food industry can afford to provide us with affordable low cost and high quality food whilst paying the people who supply it a living wage and improving working conditions.
But they are greedy and keep the profits they make for bosses and shareholders.

@ Louise

A voluntary contract between an employer and employee is NOT slavery. For slavery, there requires to be an element of compulsion.

The migrant workers you refer to are no more slaves than were the factory workers who created the wealth that old Joseph Rowntree accumulated and which funds you to write this drivel.

3. Left Not Liberal

“A voluntary contract between an employer and employee is NOT slavery. For slavery, there requires to be an element of compulsion.”

Liberal fuckwit. Read some Marx.

Liberal fuckwit. Read some Marx.

I’ve read Marx – and since his entire theory of history is premissed on different historical epocs being based on different relations of production I can’t see how invoking the name of the Left’s favourite Beardy helps your argument.

There is absolutely nothing new about concerns over the origins and quality of meat put into the human food chain. Try this BBC news report from December 2000:

Health officials are trying to reassure the public after a multi-million pound fraud in which pet food was sold as meat fit for human consumption.

The government’s food safety guardian, the Food Standards Agency, said evidence suggested that the scam had been a one-off.

Five men are due to be sentenced on Friday for selling 1,300 tonnes of condemned meat to butchers, supermarkets and restaurants all over the UK.

Containers of smelly, badly-bruised poultry, covered in faecal matter, flies and feathers, were found by officials investigating that case.

With the current food scare over horse meat on top of the financial crisis, John Redwood’s regular calls in the recent past for more and more Deregulation are laughable.

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