During the Second Reading debate on the Agriculture Bill, I asked what was the point of seeking to protect our environment, animal welfare, human health and workforce rights through high standards imposed on our food creators in this country if we then allow food produced under less stringent regimes to undercut those high standards, and end up importing all our food from abroad.
Today is Anti-Slavery Day, and the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was enacted when our present Prime Minister was Home Secretary. If we are to give any traction to the laudable aims of that Act, we need to ensure that food producers, wherever they are in the world, cannot profit financially from slavery. I well recall the shock that I felt when we saw the news that Chinese cockle-pickers had been swept out to sea and drowned in Morecambe bay. Those people were virtually unpaid, and their lives were recklessly endangered, and ultimately squandered, by gangmasters who had no compunction about breaking immigration law, health and safety regulations and minimum wage law, all in the cause of providing cheap cockles for whichever market they were selling to.
That was a headline case, but there have been plenty of stories of workers from other countries being exploited by gangmasters working in this country. Fruit pickers, vegetable pickers and other seasonal agricultural workers have been prominent among them, and that still goes on. There are workers who are nominally paid the minimum wage, but are charged for their journey to this country and their journey to work each morning, and charged over the odds for squalid housing. All those sums are deducted from their wages at source by the agents who have recruited them and are hiring them out to the organisations for which they are working.
If we are to protect people working in this country from exploitation—if we are to ensure that everyone working in this country is paid a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work—the Government must do far more to enforce the minimum wage by not just advising employers that they are breaking the law, but prosecuting and punishing them. Far more resources need to be put into investigating suspected offenders. There should be proper support for the victims of slavery and wage exploitation to encourage and enable them to act as witnesses, and there should be no easy ways to avoid the minimum wage by charging inflated rents for accommodation that is tied to employment, or exorbitant sums for transport to work.
I want our standards in this country to be something of which we can be proud, but if that is to happen, we need to ensure that we are not exporting slavery and exploitation to the third world by importing cheap goods produced under slavery conditions. Clearly the British minimum wage does not apply in other countries, but there are minimum conditions that should apply. If food is being produced through the use of indentured labour—labour provided under duress by prisoners, child labour, or even outright slavery—we have no business importing it and therefore giving financial support to the gangsters who are using those methods.
This is where the purchasing power of the supermarkets is so important. There is no excuse for them to pretend not to know or care about the conditions under which their food is produced. The big supermarkets in this country have ample resources with which to check the provenance of the food that they sell. We expect them to show due diligence throughout the supply chain in order to ensure that the food is safe to eat, and if they are doing that, they ought also to show due diligence in ensuring that it is produced fairly, without undue exploitation of the workforce.
I do not eat shellfish, but if I did, some of the stories that I have heard of exploitation in the far east, with young people being tricked, or even kidnapped, and then held as slaves to fish for shellfish on offshore platforms, would be enough to put me off. British people do not want to eat food that has been produced through the use of slave labour. British people do not want to see their fellow humans being exploited in this country either, and we want to know that those who work will be paid fairly for it.
It is time that the supermarkets realised that these things are important to their customers, and carried out thorough due diligence on all the products that they sell. I believe that they should be required to do that so that when we buy food in this country, we can know that it is not only safe, but ethically produced.