In the bad old days, unscrupulous retailers would bulk out a punnet of strawberries by packing the base with straw or leaves. Today, unscrupulous producers bulk out the wage slips of their east European workers by counting all manner of compulsory deductions as part of their pay – thus assuring the customers of Tesco and Sainsbury's that their soft fruit has been produced in accordance with the minimum standards of workforce welfare.
As we reported on our front page yesterday, the pickers employed by S&A Produce are nominally paid the national minimum wage of £5.74 an hour, but often receive less than £3 an hour after deductions for accommodation, transport, "pastoral" service and internet access that does not always work. Some of these deductions are more justified than others, but the effect is to erode the effectiveness of minimum-wage law. A further problem faced by the pickers is that the company seems to have miscalculated its labour needs and is giving its workers fewer hours than they expected. Thus some of them end up earning as little as £45 a week.
The primary responsibility for rectifying the injustices identified by our report lies with the supermarkets. In the present era of the assertive citizen, who demands as much transparency in economics as in politics, supermarkets need to work harder to assure their customers that the spirit and the letter of minimum-wage law is being observed by their suppliers.
The exploitation of foreign workers risks undercutting local labour and fuelling resentment of immigrants, no matter how temporary. Indeed, fruit pickers from Bulgaria and Romania, countries that are members of the European Union but whose citizens are denied free movement, often find themselves exploited because the restrictions of the seasonal workers scheme prevent them from changing jobs once they are here. The Government and supermarkets must work together to make sure that, when people buy a punnet of strawberries, they know what has gone into it, in every sense.