UK Fruit Farms Accused of ‘Modern Day Slavery’

Workers say they were treated ‘like slaves’ on British farms.

Three workers, who who are all from Barbados, claim they were promised a “chance of a lifetime” but were used as “slave labour” on strawberry farms in Scotland and Norwich.

The workers allege they were forced to work long hours for far less pay than they were promised and were given poor and dirty accommodation which they were also charged for.

Speaking exclusively to The Voice, one farm worker Romario Bryan, 23, said“We have been sold a lie!

“The representative for Barbados told us it is good work and you will make £500 a week but if I put all my pay cheques together since I have been here – I have made no where near that amount.

“This isn’t modern day or early day slavery – it is just slavery! 

“It doesn’t matter how you look at it, every day I am here I feel like a slave.”

The workers say they came to the UK in June as part of the government-backed UK Farm Labour Programme and have worked on three different farms but have since left and are ready to return back to the Caribbean after “being treated unfairly” and “exploited” for financial advantage.  

Mr Bryan claims the conditions which he and other Barbadian seasonal farm workers have faced are so horrendous, he compared them to a plantation.  

He likened his former managers and supervisors to slave masters and said “the only thing these people are missing is the whips and chains.”

The Voice has seen a payslip confirming some workers were paid just £39.33 after working two days at the end of June.  

According to the document, a caravan accommodation charge of £29.72 was deducted, which left workers with just £39.33.

Mr Bryan revealed while working at the farms he struggled to live on the wages he was paid and survived some weeks on just eggs and water. 

All the workers who spoke to The Voice, have accused the farms and their agency Concordia UK Ltd of “failing them” and being misleading.

Deductions

Documents seen by The Voice showed that farms had no guaranteed hours with sometimes no pay but if required up to 60 hours a week would be expected.

Any worker that failed to meet minimum picking targets would be dismissed or if possible, transferred to another farm. Papers also show that workers would pay for their own work clothes, laundry, gas and electric, and pay for beds in shared rooms, with no paid breaks, buy their own food, with an upfront deposit being taken for any damage to the communal kitchen and toilets which they would need to clean.  

A farm document showed that after tax and other deductions a worker on average would be paid £295.45 for a 48 hour week from which workers would need to find funds for food, cooking, and sleeping in shared rooms. There were also other smaller deductions.

Concordia released two statements to The Voice, in the first statement, they said: “Participants on the seasonal worker’s programme come to the UK to learn skills, gain work experience and earn an income. 

“During their time on programme in the UK we offer full support to all participants directly and through our partner agents, who are based in the country participants arrive to the UK from. 

“Our agents act as a first point of call and support to all participants. 

“The experience, treatment and safety of workers is our priority.”

The agency stated if workers report an incident to them or their agent an investigation would begin immediately.

Concordia also said: “In the case of serious complaints, we transfer the participants to another farm, or support them to travel home if they prefer. 

“This process has been followed with a small number of participants placed in Scotland, where the participants concerned were transferred to another farm. 

“Our investigation of the participants’ experiences is ongoing.”

However, the farm workers heavily criticised the statement, calling it “untrue”. 

Mr Bryan says his complaints were routinely ignored by Concordia and by CJNM Consulting Associates Ltd, the representative from Barbados who recruited him for the programme. 

CJNM Consulting Associates Ltd was formed by Cristopher Griffith, who was born in Barbados and supplies seasonal farm workers from the island to the UK. 

‘Cultural differences’

He started the UK Farm Labour Programme in 2019 and assisted the workers in securing work at the farms in Scotland and Norwich. 

Mr Griffith dismissed all claims of slavery, mistreatment and wrongdoings. 

Speaking to The Voice, he said: “It is very unfortunate some of the workers feel this way, but they are a very small minority. 

“The claims of slavery are false, I have over 100 workers across UK farms and have not had any complaints.” 

But Mr Bryan said he complained to Mr Griffith about the racism and micro aggressions he suffered while working at one farm in Scotland, and nothing was done. 

He claims while he was picking strawberries on a farm in Scotland, an Eastern European worker spat at him. 

He said: “I was so shocked and I reported it to the representative for Barbados but nothing happened. 

“I don’t feel like my complaint was taken seriously.” 

The Barbadian workers say that Eastern European supervisors ordered them to pick strawberries from the lines with the fewest fruit, causing them to earn less than the European pickers because their wages were often calculated by the volume of strawberries picked.

The workers were promised a flat hourly wage when they agreed to travel from the Caribbean but pocketed far less.

Mr Griffith said the aim of the programme was to provide his fellow Barbadians with an opportunity and to assist in filling a labour shortage in the agricultural sector because of Brexit. 

He did acknowledge some Barbadian workers had issues upon their arrival but described these as “cultural differences” rather than experiences of racism or human rights violations. 

He claims complaints were dealt with in a reasonable manner and as a result some were moved to a different farm. 

But the workers said the second farm, also in Scotland, which they moved to was just as bad as the first one. 

Mr Bryan alleges within the first couple days of his arrival at the second farm he witnessed the owner of the farm swearing and shouting at workers –which made him feel very uncomfortable.  

He said workers were crammed into the poor caravan accommodation provided and it posed multiple health and safety hazards. 

He said: “You have four people living in a three-bedroom caravan and three people living in a two-bedroom caravan.

“Some people have to sleep on a chair and they have to pay the same £52 in rent, every week.

“Those who sleep on the chair pay the same amount as those sleeping in the bedrooms.” 

Mr Bryan maintains he was moved to a caravan which had a broken toilet and had unsanitary conditions. 

A spokesperson for the second farm said: “They worked well and we appreciate the contribution they made to harvest our fruit. 

“This group of workers were offered more work than they had an appetite to do.

“We recently had an independent ethical audit, including interviews with our workers, and received positive feed back on the working conditions.

“Unfortunately due to a drop in production, due to unseasonal weather, we had to end their contract.

“Concordia, the agency the workers came through, has no issues with working practices at the farm.”

Mr Griffith also insisted he regularly inspects the farms where he sends his workers to ensure their working and living conditions are up to the required standard. 

But Mr Bryan also told The Voice, he found the farm work strenuous and dehumanising because he was told “the picking of the strawberries must be done kneeling down on your knees – while on all fours”. 

He said after working in this position for a day it would leave “a great strain on your back”.

The Voice asked Mr Griffith about working on all fours and he said there are two ways to pick strawberries depending on the variety you have. 

He said: “The table-top strawberries are raised off the ground but the other strawberries are ground on the ground and to harvest them you must be as close to the ground as possible.”

Mr Bryan was working in the construction industry before coming to UK and now feels the programme was not worth leaving his job and family for. 

He is in the UK on a six-month seasonal worker placement until December but says the third farm in England was the final straw for him –and he is ready to return to Barbados now. 

He maintains coming to the UK is his biggest regret. 

One-way ticket

A number of workers from Barbados, say they were coerced into coming to the UK on an open ticket, which has left them stranded and unable to afford to buy a ticket to return to their native country. 

Mr Griffith disputes their claims and said: “No one was coerced into buying an open ticket.

“They are told at the very beginning before they get involved in the programme that they have to pay their way.

“They are advised they only need a one-way ticket to travel into the UK for the programme and if they can afford to by a two-way ticket, they can buy one.

“Farm workers are classed as essential workers, so they are able to come to the UK on a one-way ticket because the government knows they will be working and therefore, able to purchase a ticket to return home.”

But a text message seen by The Voice, allegedly from Mr Griffith to one of the workers states “purchase a one-way ticket”. 

Mr Griffith said he is concerned that the complaints may have a ripple effect and deter other Barbadians from coming and seizing the opportunity to work in the UK.

He said: “Some people are earning money that they have never earned in their life on the programme.

“Every day I have Barbadians contacting me on What’sApp wanting to work in the UK and it is unfortunate that some of those who are here are not appreciating the opportunity.”

However, the farm workers dismissed his claims as being false.

When asked if he would recommend this programme for anyone back in Barbados or neighbouring Caribbean islands, Mr Bryan replied sternly: “Not at all, not at all!” 

Mr Bryan travelled to the UK with his girlfriend, Shamere Pinder, 25, and 13 other Barbadian workers. 

Ms Pinder told The Voice, she was threatened by Mr Griffith and told if she leaves before the programme ends in December, her passport will be “red-flagged.”

She said: “I was told by the rep my passport will be red flagged if I left to go and stay with family or friends in the UK –until they can raise the money for me to go back. 

“Concordia told us if we want to return to Barbados we must buy our own ticket.

“They (Concordia) are suppose to be our sponsor, how can we buy our own flight ticket to go back when we were not even making enough money to even buy food?”

When asked by The Voice, about the red flagging of passports, Mr Griffith denied telling any farm worker this would happen.

The Voice also contacted the agency and asked about the red-flagging accusation. 

A spokesperson for Concordia said: “Due to data protection we would not be able to share or confirm any personal information about our participants. 

“For information, certificates of sponsorship are not physical certificates, they are a number, which all workers would have displayed on their visa. 

“We are not aware of ‘red flagging’ of passports – nor what it refers to – it is not a term used by our organisation. For information, participants are issued with visas to work on UK farms, whilst a visa can end – if the participant choses to leave employment or their contract ends, this process relates to their visas, not to their passport.”

Continue reading at: www.voice-online.co.uk/news/2021/10/10/strawberry-slavery/

Ms Pinder said she felt trapped in a nightmare on the farm and reached breaking point on the third farm in England and decided to leave. 

She is now staying with friends and relatives in London before he returns back to Barbados and is being represented by a lawyer.

Ms Pinder, has a young daughter back in Barbados and says she regrets coming to UK and is adamant she should have stayed in the Caribbean and continue with the part time job that she had in a bank. 

She said: “I decided to leave because we were sold a whole bunch of lies by the agent and we were treated poorly.

“The agent would always say he never said things when he did and we have proof. 

“If we did have any issues, we would always prefer that you call him so you don’t have any evidence of the conversation.”  

Ms Pinder said she noticed a difference the treatment the workers from Barbados received in comparison to the workers from Eastern European countries. 

She said: “When the women are lifting the crates of strawberries to take them to the weighing station, no one comes to help and assist the Black workers but they would help all the other races.”

Ms Pinder insists all the workers she was sharing a caravan with would all contribute to the buying of groceries, so that their money can stretch further and stop them from going hungry. 

She said: “I would have been making more working in my little job back home, but he told us we would be making at least £500 per week and that is not true.” 

She claims other deductions which were coming out of her wages, made it impossible for her to raise enough money to buy a ticket back to Barbados.

She said: “We are paying National Insurance and pension, plus buying food and paying for our caravan. 

“Sometimes we are left with nothing. How will we be able to get back home?” 

Some of the workers were so desperate to leave they began calling friends and relatives in London telling them to come and get them. 

Speaking exclusively to The Voice, Natasha Lynch, 37, a British woman of Barbadian heritage, said she started getting distressing phone calls from a family friend who was desperate to leave the farm in June.

She said: “I was so shocked and angry at has they have been through.

“They would video call me all the time from the farms and I felt so bad for them.” 

The family support worker said she told her family friend if things got unbearable they should contact her and other relatives in London. 

She said: “I am very disappointed that they have come and had this experience in the UK and to know this is going on is worrying. 

“I understand people come here to work, but work shouldn’t be like that they told me they didn’t have money for food and felt like slaves,” she added.

Ms Lynch is now planning to assist her family friend with purchasing a ticket to return back to the Caribbean.

The demand for workers outside of the European Union (EU) has increased since Brexit. 

On 6 March 2019, the government announced the commencement of the Seasonal Workers Pilot for 2019 and 2020 (the Initial Pilot), enabling the recruitment of a limited number of temporary migrants for specific roles in the horticultural sector.

Concordia has previously operated the Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme (SWPS) in 2019 and 2020. 

On 22 December 2020, the government extended the Pilot for a further year, with an expanded quota of 30,000 places. They also announced they would have two more pilot operators join Concordia to cope with the demand.  

The Extended Pilot will continue to be managed by the Home Office under the T5 (Temporary Worker) Seasonal Worker immigration route.

Another worker, Kamal Boodhoo, 28, spoke to The Voice and said when he was transferred to the third farm in England that was his breaking point.

He said: “The caravan that I was given was infested with spiders and mould.

“There was blood in my caravan and the working conditions were appalling.

“My break times were always cut short and I don’t think I have made anything more than £150 per week.”

Mr Boodhoo said the third farm had “disgusting outside toilet facilities.” 

He also feels the Barbadian workers were unfairly treated because they were the only Black workers on these farms. 

Mr Boodhoo decided to finally leave the farm, after he was taken to the hospital with back pain, which he says he got from the poor condition of the bed he was given to sleep on. 

He said: “I can’t wait to get back to Barbados and get back to my family and my daughter. 

“I do not want anyone in Barbados or in the Caribbean to come to the UK and do this work.” 

Mr Boodhoo, Ms Pinder and Mr Bryan revealed to The Voice, that with the help of their families and friends they have managed to purchase tickets to return to Barbados. 

Some Barbadian workers have decided to stay on the farms.

One Barbadian worker spoke to The Voice anonymously, and said he has decided to “tolerate” the working conditions. 

Jermaine Hutchinson (not his real name) said: “The people just care about making money, they don’t care about your health.

“This place is in the middle of nowhere and the conditions are very disgusting and unsanitary.

“People shave and leave their hair in the sink and all over the floor, all the toilets are covered in human waste.

“Within a week of being here, I was coughing and had to go to the hospital.”

He recalls being told “pick, pick pick and fast, fast, fast” when he was picking strawberries on his knees at some of the farms.

He claims the workers were not allowed to stand up and stretch their backs or legs when they were working, despite the long hours and working on their knees.

“Unrivalled knowledge”

In a payslip seen by The Voice, Mr Hutchinson was paid £35.64 for four hours work and then had an accommodation charge of £29.72 deducted, leaving him with just £5.92. 

He said he did query why the accommodation charge was taken out even though he earned so little and claims he wasn’t given an answer.

Mr Hutchinson was working before he arrived in the UK and travelled with money, which he said he has to rely on to survive –despite working long hours.

He told The Voice, if you take a day off because you are sick you would deliberately be left off the rota and wouldn’t have any work for up to a week –which means you wouldn’t be paid.

He said despite working long hours, the farm workers would be offered more overtime and told “you can make more money”. 

Mr Hutchinson says there are still “a lot of issues” but he has decided to stay because it is his first time travelling abroad and hopes to “kill two birds with one stone, by working and seeing a new country.” 

A Government spokesperson said: “The Government takes the safety and wellbeing of seasonal workers extremely seriously, with all farms vetted by the licensed Scheme Operators. Workers should only be placed with farms which adhere to all relevant legislation, pay the National Minimum Wage and provide suitable living conditions.

“All of our scheme operators provide a helpline, enabling workers to report any concerns and seek assistance whenever they need. The operators are licenced by Gangmasters and Labour Abuse authority, any issues of mistreatment can be reported to them and will be taken seriously.”

The Voice has contacted some of the farms for comment but at the time of publication were yet to receive a single response.

Concordia’s website says it has supported fruit growers since 1943 and that this has given them “unrivalled knowledge of seasonal horticulture work placements. Our extensive experience and expertise allow us to empathise with the challenges you face, and consequently, offer the support you need to ensure everything runs effectively.”  

The website also boasts that it can provide a reliable workforce saying: “We work closely with our overseas agents to ensure that all seasonal work candidates are interviewed and thoroughly screened, fully briefed on the job description and motivated to work. This ensures that workers arrive with accurate expectations and are well suited to the work that they will be performing.

Many of the farm websites warn workers that the work is hard with one warning potential workers not to apply unless they were fit because “you will be required to carry loads of over 10kg for up to 200 meters” and that the job was physically demanding and involved bending and lifting.

Concordia, a registered UK Charity, made profits of £1.6 million in its last accounts filed at Companies House. It’s latest Report also stated that all their charitable objectives had been met, adding that: “We also took the opportunity to have our activities reviewed by our legal advisor during the year, who confirmed they fully complied with our objectives and charity law.”

The Voice will be writing to the Charity Commission and asking it look into whether seasonal farm worker recruitment, pay, terms and conditions meet the high ethical standards Concordia maintains that it achieves.

Please join the conversation on Caribbean Empowerment’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2583126101949661/ Or, you can comment by emailing us at: caribbeanempowerment@pm.me

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