Supermarkets blamed for influx of illegal labourers

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Indy Politics

The big supermarkets are accused today of fuelling the influx of low-paid foreign labourers heading to Britain to work illegally picking fruit, vegetables and flowers.

The big supermarkets are accused today of fuelling the influx of low-paid foreign labourers heading to Britain to work illegally picking fruit, vegetables and flowers.

A cross-party committee of MPs says the retailers have "washed their hands" of the problem because of the pressures of price competition and consumer demand.

In a scathing report to be published today, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee also criticises the Government for failing to get to grips with the "gangmasters" who supply casual labour, often illegally.

It says there has been no serious analysis of the scale of the problem, but details a series of cases where foreign casual workers have been exploited.

A Ukrainian woman was charged £600 by a "gangmaster" in the Midlands for documents she never received. She was paid less than the minimum wage and housed in a mobile cabin with one kitchen and lavatory between 18 people.

A gang of Portuguese nationals who were paid £3 each, after deductions were made for accommodation and travel, for cutting 1,000 daffodils.

The MPs say the demands of the supermarkets mean that their suppliers are under strain to meet orders. The suppliers have little opportunity or incentive to check the legality of the labour they use.

The committee says: "Supermarkets cannot wash their hands of this matter. We urge them to monitor their suppliers more closely, eliminate supply routes which rely on illegal gangmasters and take action where illegal has identified."

Of the main supermarkets that responded to the committee, only Marks & Spencer was committed to action against suppliers using illegal labour. Asda and Tesco were not, while Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Safeway did not supply any information.

The MPs say supermarkets go to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of the labels on their products. They add: "We believe they should pay equal attention to the conditions under which their produce is harvested and packed and label it accordingly."

The committee chairman, David Curry, said: "The power of the supermarkets may be creating a climate in which the illegal operator can flourish. It's terribly difficult for the honest person to compete."

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said the supermarkets regularly reminded suppliers to ensure casual staff were legally employed. "Retailers are as responsible as they can be, but when it comes down to actual employment activity that is a matter for the enforcement agencies," he said.

A spokeswoman for Sainsbury's said: "We take this issue extremely seriously and were the first supermarket to address it by working with the Ethical Trading Initiative. We pride ourselves on having a good relationship with our suppliers and regularly visit them to monitor practices."

The report says: "The enforcement agencies are insufficiently resourced and lack the political backing to make a significant impact on illegal activity within the ... market."

The MPs also turn their fire on the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announcing a fresh inquiry in the spring. "The Government has failed to confront the problems in the industry. Enforcement of existing legislation is perfunctory and unco-ordinated," they say.

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