An appetite for cheap labour and a callous disregard for safety are driving the ruthless exploitation of vulnerable immigrant workers within the global food industry. Even employers who seek to hire within the law are being hoodwinked by flaky paperwork, but moves are afoot to protect both employers and immigrant workers, as Patrick McGuigan reports.

Everyone loves a bargain; but rock-bottom prices in supermarkets are only possible because food companies often pay their workers low wages. So low, in fact, that many people in rich Western countries are not willing to do them. Instead, foreign workers from poorer countries fill the labour gap, working in fields and factories to satisfy people’s appetites for cheap food.

When migrant workers are properly protected by employment laws, this situation seems to satisfy all parties involved, but all too often it is illegal immigrants that end up working in the food industry. For legitimate companies, this can make recruitment a minefield of forged documents and possible prosecution by authorities, while unscrupulous employers are free to exploit illegal workers, sometimes with tragic consequences.

In February this year, for example, 20 Chinese cockle pickers drowned at Morecambe Bay in the UK. The suspected illegal immigrants, who were caught out by fast-rising tides, had little idea that they were working in such a dangerous place until it was too late. It is thought that they were working for so-called gang masters for as little as £1 (US$1.84) per day.

The incident highlights the kind of problems that affect several areas of the food industry all over Europe. The temporary, seasonal and low-skilled nature of fruit and vegetable picking is one sector particularly blighted by gangmasters, who supply farms with cheap labour, while paying their workers rock-bottom wages. In Spain, where agriculture is still an important industry, the promise of fruit-picking work, however badly paid, tempts young men from North Africa to cross the Straits of Gibraltar on inflatable rubber dinghies, often with fatal consequences.

In the UK’s agriculture and horticulture industry, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) estimates there are some 3,000 gang masters employing 60,000 workers, many of whom are illegal. In one case highlighted by the union, migrant workers packing fruit for a supermarket were left with just £0.78 per week after their gangmaster had deducted rent and transport. They were being housed six to a room and charged £55 a week for the accommodation.

No paper trail

Labour MP Jim Sheridan, working with the TGWU, has tabled a private members bill in the House of Commons aimed at establishing a system of registration and licensing for gangmasters. Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary of the TGWU, who helped to draft the bill, says: “The weaknesses of the law are undermining reputable labour providers and responsible retailers, and allowing the ruthless exploitation of vulnerable workers. This bill would ensure that gangmasters must obtain a license and operate transparently, establishing the paper trail that has been missing which has assisted illegal employers in operating beyond the law.”

The prevalence of gangmasters and illegal foreign workers across Europe suggest that there are jobs that need doing and not enough people to do them. The obvious answer would be to make it easier for migrants to work in those sectors of the economy, such as the food industry, where temporary low-skilled, low-pay labour is needed. But immigration is an emotive and sensitive subject and governments are often unwilling to grasp the nettle.

According to Jean-Phillipe Chauzy, spokesman for the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration, governments in Europe need to be far more courageous in their policies on migrant workers in order to stop illegal immigration and to help their own economies. “We believe host countries need to define the sectors of their economies where labour needs are most pressing and then set up labour migration policies so people can legally fill those vacancies.”

He points to a successful migration scheme in Italy as an example of what governments around the world could and should be doing. “Albania has traditionally been a source and transit country for illegal immigrants trying to enter Italy and Europe. At the same time the Italian economy has labour gaps that need filling,” he says. “We helped organise a scheme where several thousand Albanian workers could legally work in Italy for three years. We set up an information campaign telling Albanians of the opportunity and built up a database of applicants, listing their skills and language abilities. This was posted on the Italian Ministry of Employment’s website and employers could pick the employees they wanted. Contracts were then sent out and migrants could come over to work.”

Effect of EU enlargement difficult to foretell

Another important issue set to affect the European labour market in the coming months is the accession of ten new EU member states. The development has led some to suggest that large numbers of people, particularly from the eight former communist states, will be tempted by jobs with higher wages and more generous benefit systems in existing European countries. Concerns over a ‘flood’ of immigrants have led most current EU members to impose restrictions on workers coming from new member states.

Any increase in the number of legal foreign workers willing to work in low-paid jobs appears to be good news for the food industries of developed economies such as France, Italy, Germany and the UK. But Jean Phillipe Chauzy back at the IOM doubts there will be the mass migration predicted by many. A recent IOM report into the effects of EU enlargement on labour markets found that most workers from new member states will probably only work abroad for a limited amount of time, before returning to their native countries.

“There will be short- to medium-term migration, but not permanent migration,” he says. “In fact, many of the new member states are likely to become target destinations for migrant workers from outside the EU as their economies grow after accession.”

Whether EU enlargement will benefit food companies by growing the low-cost labour workpool remains to be seen. One thing that is certain is that companies will continue unwittingly to employ illegal workers while so many counterfeit identification documents are in circulation. Last year, for example, a biscuit company in the UK called The Cookie Man was raided by immigration officers, who found 101 foreigners, many of whom were Brazilian, working illegally out of a total of 175 employees at the factory.

The company was liable for huge fines, £5,000 per illegal worker, but the case against it was dropped. “There was no prosecution brought against us because we had done everything we should have,” says Cookie Man general manger Jason Schib. “The workers supplied us with the correct papers and passports and we took copies, but it turned out they were all counterfeit. There was no way we could tell.”

System open to abuse

In Schib’s opinion the system is open to abuse because the required paperwork is too simple. “What I would like to see is some kind of central database of workers, who are eligible to work, each with an individual number. Then you could look up the number and if it was allocated to another job, you would know something funny was going on,” he says.

Like Europe, the US food industry relies on foreign labour in many sectors, many of whom are illegally working under forged documents. In recognition of the situation, George Bush announced at the beginning of 2004 that the US would grant millions of illegal workers, many of whom are from Mexico, permission to work legally in the US for a fixed period.

US immigration reform overdue

“We believe the US is overdue for immigration reform,” says Ed Nicholson, director of media relations at meat processor Tyson Foods, which employs 110,000 people in the US. “If people want to work, they should be allowed to. We have jobs available, but we shouldn’t have to act as the police when it comes to verifying documents – that’s the government role.”

Tyson Foods was embroiled in an illegal immigration scandal in 2001, when the Immigration and Naturalisation Service claimed several managers at the company’s Shelbyville, Tennessee, plant were knowingly recruiting illegal workers from Mexico.

Tyson faced millions of dollars in fines and possible jail sentences for senior executives, but was cleared along with three of the accused managers last year. Two other managers pleaded guilty to the charges, but Nicholson says the court recognised they were operating outside Tyson’s strict hiring programme. “In fact, we have been chastised in the past for our recruitment policies being too tough,” he says.