Price of a punnet: low pay, long shifts, blistering heat

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Supermarkets are checking conditions at Britain's biggest strawberry farm after allegations that workers from eastern Europe were being exploited.

Sainsbury's and Tesco are both investigating claims by the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) that migrant workers at S&A Produce Ltd in Herefordshire have been working up to 14 hours a day in sweltering heat. The allegations were vigorously denied by S&A, which is currently picking 180 tons a day. It said the claims arose from "dissatisfied workers who have been dismissed".

The £150m-a-year strawberry industry employs thousands of migrant workers during the picking season from May and October.

Residents and MPs have condemned the villages of mobile homes that spring up to accommodate the influx of European workers and the blot on the landscape caused by hundreds of acres of plastic sheeting - polytunnels - that protect the crops from the rain.

Last week, Sainsbury's suspended supplies from the Mansfield strawberry farm in Kent following reports that workers were receiving just £13 for a 12-hour shift. An independent audit of the farm ordered by its management is due to report back next week.

The T&G said it had decided to act over S&A - which runs two fruit farms in Herefordshire and one in Kent - after being contacted by disgruntled workers.

At the height of the fruit-picking season, S&A employs 3,500 seasonal staff. The T&G claimed that pickers were employed for shifts that lasted up to 14 hours a day, with less than 30 minutes' break per day.

Despite having contracts stating they would normally work five days a week, "frequent breaches" meant workers worked for six or seven days a week, the union claimed. It said charges had been made for accessing basic health services, such as a £50 fee for "hospital administration" and that each worker had paid £300 to gain employment.

The union said that it had gone to Sainsbury's and Tesco to request "their immediate intervention to end the abusive practices". Jack Dromey, the T&G deputy general secretary, said there had been exploitation of workers "at the bottom of the food supply chain".

Gilbert Savory, human resources manager at S&A, said that none of the allegations made by the union could be substantiated. "We don't work people that long and they all have breaks longer than half an hour," he said. Claims of charges for health care were "absolutely untrue"; the £300 signing-on charge was "fictitious", while the workers' "particulars of employment" stated they might be called on to work as andwhen necessary, he said.

A Tesco spokeswoman said the company was carrying out its own investigation to ensure that S&A was meeting labour standards. Sainsbury's said it took the welfare of workers "very seriously". "We are sending a senior manager to visit the farm to assess the situation personally," it said.

Cracking down on the gangmasters

* Conditions for agricultural workers are generally considered to be among the worst in British industry. Stories of seasonal workers being paid a pittance for a back-breaking day in the fields picking fruit or vegetables are common.

Impetus for change only came after the Morecambe Bay disaster in 2004 which claimed the lives of 23 Chinese cocklers employed by a gangmaster. A private member's Bill introduced as a consequence by Jim Sheridan MP sought to bring under official control the shadowy agents who supply labourers. Unions estimated that gangmasters were responsible for exploiting at least 60,000 workers, many living in fear of deportation and housed in overcrowded slums. After the Gangmasters Licensing Act came into force, Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU, said: "The days of illegal gangmasters, who profit from the misery of thousands of workers, defraud the state and drive good businesses to the wall, are numbered."

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