Marks and Spencer (M&S) confirmed it is planning to speak to this year’s migrant workers for one of its strawberry suppliers – Castleton Farm in Aberdeenshire – after concerns about fair pay were raised.
Reports of concerns from Castleton fruit pickers coincided with the publication of a report last month by London-based charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex) about the risks of labour exploitation associated with the UK Government’s seasonal agricultural workers scheme pilot.
The study drew on data collected from workers placed by the scheme on 12 unnamed Scottish farms. It found no cases of human trafficking, which has been a problem at some UK farms, and highlighted some good practice.
But the study also claimed to have produced evidence of forced labour indicators, such as degrading conditions and “excessive dependency on employers”.
With the scheme expanding this year, Flex is now warning that the combination of Brexit – which has ended free movement – and Covid-19 restrictions will create “the perfect storm” of risk for migrants coming to work in the UK this year.
In recent months The Ferret has received testimony from several migrants who worked on Scottish fruit farms last year. They include two from Castleton Farm – one of Scotland’s largest independent soft fruit farms, with mainstream suppliers including M&S.
The workers said zero-hour contracts at Castleton meant they earned a fraction of what they expected. Their complaints chime with interviews given to the Financial Times last month from workers at the farm who said they were paid for the amount of fruit they picked rather than per hour, a system known as “piece rate”.
Though, as stipulated by law, this was topped up to at least minimum wage, workers claim that pickers who had not worked fast enough were sent back to their caravans for the remainder of a working day, which meant they were not able to make any more money.