Leading article: The abuse of our migrant workers

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The Independent Online

The words "strawberry picking" do not tend to conjure up images of pain and misery. But those are exactly what a company called S&A Produce, which produces one-third of the strawberries sold in Britain, stands accused of visiting on its pickers at its Herefordshire site. The Transport and General Workers' Union has described conditions there as resembling "modern-day slavery", and yesterday called on Tesco and J Sainsbury, S&A Produce's biggest customers, to boycott the company.

From the testimony of workers, the union claims pickers are forced to work 14-hour days, with virtually no break. It accuses the company of denying the workers urgent medical care and forcing them into cramped living quarters with poor safety and hygiene. And, incredibly, we learn that each employee has to stump up £300 for the privilege of working there. If true, and the company denies it, this sounds like the sort of thing that would happen in a developing country, not Britain with our sophisticated protections of workers' rights.

Some 3,000 to 5,000 workers are employed at the Herefordshire site. Most are believed to be foreign workers. Many will fear their work contracts being torn up if they complain. Those who have entered the country illegally risk being reported to the authorities if they create a fuss. Few will be aware of their rights. It is far easier to abuse desperate foreigners than native Britons.

Let us be under no illusions. This scenario is replicated all around the country. Tens of thousands of migrant workers do short-term, unpleasant jobs, in appalling conditions. We were given a glimpse of this miserable shadow life through the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay two years ago. Such workers deserve better. These are the people who clean our offices and streets. They work in our restaurants and pick our fruit. The UK economy could not function without them. Yet their reward is to be demonised by the right-wing press and abused by unscrupulous employers.

An obvious way of improving their lives would be to offer an official amnesty to illegal migrant workers. Employers would be much less likely to abuse regularised workers. This idea has won the support of the TGWU. But this week the Government ruled it out. Yet again our leaders have capitulated to the hectoring of xenophobes. The result will be the continued abuse of our precious migrant workforce.