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A task force launched by UK supermarkets to tackle the exploitation of farm workers has failed to complete audits months after the investigations were supposed to take place, leaving vulnerable migrants at risk.
Tesco, J Sainsbury, Waitrose and other leading British food retailers announced earlier this year they were supporting independent assessments of the UK-based recruiters licensed to hire temporary farm workers from abroad after investors called on them to eliminate widely reported incidents of exploitation.
However, an independent audit has started on just one of the six licensed recruitment companies, according to three people close to the task force.
“The failure of retailers . . . to follow through on [efforts] to exercise human rights due diligence on [recruiters] is leaving vulnerable seasonal workers at increased risk,” said Andy Hall, an independent labour rights campaigner who meets regularly with the task force.
In a letter to their suppliers in February, supermarkets said that the assessments were “expected to take place in April/early May”, ahead of the summer season when many foreign workers arrive in the UK to harvest fruit.
The aim was to assess the recruitment process of UK agencies and their counterparts abroad, rather than conditions on the farms themselves.
The retailers said they expected “growers in our supply chain will only use” recruiters that had been through a self-assessment and an independent audit, which includes an overseas investigation of hiring practices and a survey of workers once they arrive in the UK.
The initiative was announced after reports that many workers had paid exorbitant fees to agencies in their home countries in order to come to the UK, leaving them working to pay off debts. Campaigners say that migrant workers have also been housed in unsafe conditions and have suffered mistreatment by employers, including threats of deportation.
In the wake of Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where the largest number of seasonal workers came from, the UK has been forced to look further afield to find the temporary workers who pick the fruit and vegetables sold by supermarkets each harvesting season.
But campaigners have warned that workers from places such as central and east Asia, who are less familiar with UK employment standards, are routinely charged the equivalent of thousands of pounds in fees by unscrupulous job-finding agencies in their home country.
In December, investors with £800bn in assets, including shareholders in big supermarkets, called on retailers to ensure workers are repaid the millions that they are estimated to have collectively spent to secure jobs, a practice that is prohibited in the UK.
Critics warn that the failure to act leaves foreign workers at risk of being exploited again.
“How can it be that companies have made commitments to ensure workers don’t pay recruitment costs, but these aren’t being adhered to?” said a person familiar with the task force’s workings. They added that audits “would be helpful in assessing the process that the recruitment agencies have in place to protect workers”.
The British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, said it expected recruiters to participate in the audits “in a timely manner”.
The government “needs to take action to address the systemic challenges within the design, operation, and enforcement of the [seasonal worker scheme]”, it added.
The industry-backed task force, whose participants include food retailers and non-governmental organisations, said it was working “towards a common objective of safeguarding migrant workers’ rights”, including by “improving due diligence during recruitment”.
But it added that the initiative had “not been established to replace independent monitoring or to attempt to replace the role or responsibilities of government or statutory bodies”.
The Home Office said it was “clamping down on poor working conditions and exploitation”.
It added: “We will always take decisive action where we believe abusive practices are taking place or the conditions of the route are not met.”