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Racism, bullying, threats ... daily life of migrant workers

Study reveals inhuman conditions endured by those who are under the control of gangmasters

Hundreds of migrant workers continue to live in a climate of fear, poverty stricken, subjected to inhuman conditions and indebted to gangmasters, a report published today reveals.

'Experiences of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry', a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and one of the largest studies into the plight of those in the industry from farm and factory workers through to those toiling in restaurants, found a catalogue of abusive practices.

Its researchers discovered workers were subjected to racist or sexist bullying and threats. Isolated, unable to speak English and unaware of their rights, many complained of feeling depressed and some were driven to self harm.

"I felt like the sky was falling on me, but I had no choice," said one such worker, Adriana, a 30-year-old Romanian. "I needed money. I needed work. I didn't care any more. I was at the point when you'd rather kill me than go back there. I lost weight. I was tense and sad all the time." Despite the fact most were legal migrants, they were unaware of their rights and frequently exploited.

"It's about survival," said 50-year-old Chinese worker Ah Lin. "Feeling bullied or suppressed is normal and unavoidable. There are no alternatives."

A significant proportion had paid fees to agents and remained trapped in debt. One particular scam, researchers found, was a practice of recruiting too many workers and then giving them just enough employment to meet debts to the gangmaster but keep them living in penury, forced to share cramped, sub-standard accommodation.

Others complained of feeling like machines, under constant surveillance – timed during toilet breaks – and given targets that were impossible to meet.

In 2009, forced labour became a criminal offence under the Coroners and Justice Act, yet the report's authors said: "It is difficult to say whether the exploitation reported was severe enough to constitute forced labour, but the evidence indicated that employers were infringing many rights." Sam Scott, one of the authors, added: "Most migrants we spoke to are in the UK legally, but their employment conditions are far from legal. Withholding payment, illegal deductions from wages and no proper breaks are regular occurrences."

Researchers interviewed 62 workers, mostly from Poland, China, Lithuania and Latvia, working in south Lincolnshire, east-central Scotland, south west England, London and Liverpool.

More than two thirds complained of living in fear, psychological harm, working more than 50 hours a week, being paid below the minimum wage of £5.83 an hour and illegal deductions from their wages. The report's recommendations included a strengthening of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority powers, continued vigilance of the supply chain by major retailers, more focus on how migrant workers can seek legal redress with better access to English courses.

It also called for greater support from unions and more action by HM Revenue and Customs to tackle minimum wage violations. The report said: "The bottom of the UK labour market, despite protections, can be deeply unattractive and all too often exploitative. Work is tough, low-paid and insecure. Many interviewees barely earned enough to survive. Fear and powerlessness were almost ubiquitous."