Ending Exploitation in Supermarket Supply Chains

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:21 pm on 18th October 2018.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 12:21 pm, 18th October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
is concerned about the practice of modern slavery and the exploitation of labour in the supply chains of supermarkets in the UK;
notes this week marks world food day and anti-slavery day;
recognises the global leadership that the Government has shown in tackling modern slavery in supply chains in the Modern Slavery Act 2015;
and calls on the Government to help ensure that steps are taken to protect the workers and farmers who produce food.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time for this debate and to my co-sponsors, my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, and Julian Sturdy. Unfortunately, neither of them is able to join us.

From the recent industrial action by staff at McDonald’s, Wetherspoon’s and TGI Fridays to the International Labour Organisation’s estimate of more than 1.1 million victims of slavery working in the agricultural sector, that is all part of the same picture, showing that the cheap food we often take for granted all too often comes at a human cost. Today is World Anti-Slavery Day, and Tuesday was World Food Day, so this is a fitting time to start looking seriously at how we end this exploitation.

Long after the Morecambe bay disaster in 2004, when 21 Chinese illegal migrant labourers drowned while picking cockles, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is still finding cases of human trafficking and slavery in the UK food industry. Earlier this year, a Cornish gangmaster who systematically exploited her workers—skimming off their pay, sending them to work double shifts with insufficient breaks and charging them to live in unsanitary caravans—was shut down by the GLAA. In Kent, 16 Lithuanian farm workers won a case against two gangmasters who forced them to work under threats of violence and kept them in squalid living conditions. Two other Lithuanian workers were trafficked to work in a meat processing plant, had their pay withheld and were subjected to violence. Their traffickers were sentenced to just three and a half years in jail.

There are numerous other examples from the meat-processing sector. A chicken factory in America was discovered to be employing illegal and under-age workers, blackmailing them to work for minimal pay in unsafe conditions under the threat of deportation. Quite often it is undocumented migrants who are most vulnerable to exploitation. Workers at the chicken factory were found to be wearing nappies at their post because they were not allowed to take toilet breaks.

The tomato industry is also rife with exploitation. Some 60% of UK tinned tomatoes come from southern Italy, where illegal gangmasters, who are part of organised crime, control worker recruitment and supervision. This is an extremely lucrative business, profiting from what an Italian prosecutor described as “conditions of absolute exploitation”. By contrast, in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has transformed the tomato sector, aiding prosecutions of slavery operations, forging alliances between farm workers and consumers, and leveraging consumer power to put pressure on the big supermarket buyers to end exploitation. That has now been rolled out to other American states, and it is a fantastic organisation.

The seafood sector is particularly notorious. In Ireland, a permit scheme for fishermen has seen African and Asian men trafficked on to trawlers, doing 20 hours a day of manual labour, legally bound to the employer and too scared to speak up for fear of arrest or deportation. Ireland now has a tier 2 ranking for trafficking—on a par with Indonesia and India—due to the Government’s failure adequately to protect victims and successfully convict traffickers.

The Environmental Justice Foundation uncovered horrific examples of slavery in the Thai seafood sector. Workers were tortured and abused, with wages, food and sleep withheld. Some men were kept at sea for months on end, being transferred from one ship to another without ever seeing dry land. They were force-fed methamphetamines to keep them working for longer, and bodies were thrown overboard when they were unable to go on. Some 59% of fishing workers had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker.

There is also evidence of Rohingya migrants from Myanmar being trafficked from camps, and even detention centres, and sold to Thai fishing vessels as slaves, yet millions of pounds’-worth of seafood products are still imported to the UK from Thailand every year. I want to make it clear that this is not just something happening overseas that has little to do with us. These are products on our supermarket shelves, and we are eating them without realising their links with slavery.