08:07 Tuesday 1st October 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[P]AUL STAINTON: As you’ve been hearing this morning, as a result of a BBC Radio Cambridgeshire investigation, four British supermarkets are investigating claims that migrant workers who pick their vegetables in the Fens are being exploited by unlicensed gangmasters. The investigation found that leeks on sale in Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, ASDA and the Co-op had been picked by Eastern Europeans, some of whom claimed to have been threatened and underpaid. Well our very own Jo Taylor has spent the last five months working on this investigation, and I’m pleased to say she joins me now. Morning Jo.
JO TAYLOR: Morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Just remind us what sparked this investigation.
JO TAYLOR: Well we’ve been hearing about this problem for a while. You had Anita on earlier from the Rosmini Centre, but we hardly ever hear from the migrants themselves, the community that’s very hard to get into. So eventually that’s what I went to do, to go and talk to them and find out what was really going on.
PAUL STAINTON: I saw your report on the six o’clock news last night, and it was shocking, some of the things you uncovered.
JO TAYLOR: Yes. It was shocking. What was shocking as well was how widespread some of the things were that I was hearing about. The conditions people, live in, ceilings falling in, mould everywhere. And they’re charged a fair whack for that, fifty pounds a week for the privilege of living in those conditions. Then there was the money people were being left with in their pay packets. Imagine you’re working really hard in the fields all week, twelve hour days. And after the illegal gangmaster’s taken his rent and travel, you’re ending up with twenty pounds. It’s not very much. One of the worst examples, one migrant told me that one week he was left with just forty three pence, which is ridiculous. The other thing that was really shocking to me was the violence I heard about, the having to pay bribes to get that regular work. And if you refused you were threatened with having your personal safety or your life in danger. And these are young people I was speaking to, nineteen years old, twenty years old. They’re far away from home. I just can’t imagine my younger brother for example being in that situation. I would be devastated.
PAUL STAINTON: What have the big supermarkets had to say about what you’ve uncovered?
JO TAYLOR: Well the supermarkets have said that they knew nothing about it. ASDA, Marks and Spencer, the Co-op and Waitrose say they take the allegations very seriously, and they are investigating. They also .. they’re saying this about auditing systems that they have in place, their code of conduct, and the fact that they only use licensed gangmasters.
PAUL STAINTON: Alright. This investigation of course has been making waves. Will it lead to changes for these workers and changes in the way they’re forced to live their lives?
JO TAYLOR: Well I hope so, because the authorities are trying to do something about it. You’ve got the police with Operation Pheasant , where they go into houses of multiple occupancy in the area to check the living conditions, and try and crack down on it in that way. That’s a multi-agency thing. Lots of agencies are involved in that. And you’ve got the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. This is a vast industry. It’s really hard for them to control things. And essentially you need to throw some funding at it.
PAUL STAINTON: Thank you for that Jo. Much appreciated. .. Let’s speak to Stephen Barclay, the MP for North East Cambridgeshire who joins me now. Morning Stephen.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s your reaction to what Jo’s uncovered?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: I very much welcome the report. It fully endorses the issues I highlighted in my Westminster Hall debate in June last year, and again in June of this year, where I talked of some of the cases of exploitation such as in Whittlesey, where there was not only CCTV cameras on the outside of the house, but actually inside the house itself, to spy on people there. So it is a problem. As Jo referred to, there is a multi-agency approach to it. We had the support. I saw the Home Secretary three times last year to highlight this issue. And together with superb support from Cambridgeshire Police who have been very proactive on this, there is a multi-agency approach, and work is being done, and Government funding is being allocated.
PAUL STAINTON: Not enough work’s being done, is it, because people are living in these situations and these conditions, are being exploited. If we know it’s going on, why isn’t it being stopped?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Well there’s different aspects to it. Part of it is the pull factor, so in some cases people are just being misled. They’re promised a job and accommodation if they come here, and the in essence when they get here they’re ripped off. There’s only one day, two days a week work. They get into debt to the gangmasters, and they’re taken advantage of.
PAUL STAINTON: Surely we know who these people are, these gangmasters. Why can’t we close them down?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Of course there’s different aspects. Some of the gangmasters are behaving perfectly sensibly and reasonably. It’s not all gangmasters …
PAUL STAINTON: No no no. But we know who the bad ones are surely don’t we?.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Indeed, and that’s why we’ve got a multi-agency approach. But as I say there’s different aspects. Another aspect to this is the houses in multiple occupation, which is both a serious issue for those living in that accommodation, often as your report highlights very unpleasant conditions, but it’s also an issue for local residents, because you then get street drinking, urinating on the streets, and the issues that go alongside HMOs. And that’s why again Mark Prisk has signalled that there will be additional funding and Fenland have put a bid in for that at the moment. So this is a very real problem, and it’s quite right that the BBC highlighted it. It’s an issue as I say I highlighted in Parliament last year, this year, with meetings with the Home Secretary. But there’s different aspects. There’s the mis-selling to get people here on false pretences. There’s the accommodation which is often totally unacceptable. There’s criminality such as counterfeiting of goods, prostitution and the crime that goes alongside these sorts of activities. But also there’s other aspects. So one thing we’re working on is to try and get an agri-tech centre here, which you may say Paul, well, what’s that to do with it. But if we use technology more in the fields .. because the crops still need to be picked. We still need people to go out there and pick these crops. And part of the problem, until the welfare reforms kick in more, is quite often some people opt to be on benefits rather than to go out and pick these crops, which is where the demand for these workers is coming from. And if we can get development on the technology side, as you’ve seen in other industries, and bring that more into agriculture. we can upskill some of these jobs using robotics and other technology.
PAUL STAINTON: So that’s going to do people out of jobs, isn’t it? It’s not going to give people a better working and living conditions, is it?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: No, but that will reduce some of the demand for what tend to be unskilled jobs, which are being filled from people overseas, rather than how we get people who are not working here into filling some of those jobs. because as I say the crops do need to be picked. So there’s different aspects. part of it’s mis-selling. part of it’s poor accommodation. part of it’s people being a long way from home, not knowing the language, and being victims to criminals. There are legitimate gangmasters behaving responsibly. This isn’t the whole market that we’re dealing with. But there is a very real problem of people being abused, and also that having a knock-on effect, often to residents nearby. Because if you have twenty thirty people all living in a house of multiple occupation, what tends to happen is they then go out on the street. They have a drink. Where do they go to the loo? And you get anti-social problems as a result. So there’s multi-aspects to this, which is why I have been focusing on it for so long, to highlight these different bits, how we get an agri-tech centre, how we deal with the social problems, how we deal with the mis-selling in the home country. So it’s not an overnight solution, but we do need to look at it in a multi-faceted way.
PAUL STAINTON: Arthur’s been on. let me tell you what Arthur says on email. He says “Knowing that we have a multi-agency approach means no-one actually owns the problem or does anything about it. And that’s why it’s carrying on,” says Arthur.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: I understand that, and as someone who site on the Public Accounts Committee one of the points I constantly make is where does accountability sit. But it is very clear that the lead agency in Operation Pheasant and the multi-agency approach has been the police. And as I say I think that they’ve been very good and very proactive in this.
PAUL STAINTON: Should we have a minimum price for food? Should we do that? Shall we, instead of a minimum price for alcohol, how about a minimum price for carrots? I’m being quite flippant, but surely we’re paying too little for our food. Aren’t the supermarkets putting too much pressure ..
STEPHEN BARCLAY: It’s too serious a problem we’re dealing with here to start being flippant about it. That would just simply increase the profits for those that are taking advantage of people, and penalise every other constituent in the constituency who’s nothing to do with this issue. So I think this is a serious issue, and with respect it isn’t one to deal with flippantly. We’ve got people ..
PAUL STAINTON: We need to deal with it. It’s not been dealt with, is it? That’s the problem. At the moment, people are living in this way and are being exploited. So something needs to be done. What?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: It is being dealt with.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Your journalist went alongside Operation Pheasant, which is the very essence of it being dealt with. We have a multi-agency approach. I’ve just gone though some of the things that are being done to tackle this, both in terms of looking at technology as the longer term. But some of the quicker issues in terms of tackling the criminality, tackling the way people are being misled, tackling some of the vulnerabilities which the Rosmini Centre does a lot to ..
PAUL STAINTON: So you’re happy then Steve. You’re happy things are working fine.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Of course I’m not. Of course. That was a ridiculous comment, because the reason I have highlighted .. I have highlighted it with respect a long time before your BBC report brought this to light. I highlighted it back in June 2012 in my Westminster Hall debate. I highlighted it again last year. The reason the Home Secretary announced at the Conference yesterday a modern day Slavery Bill is because the Government is acutely aware both of this problem, which affects migrants, it has a knock-on effect in terms of local people who often get the consequences of some of these issues. So I as a Member of Parliament have repeatedly raised this issue, along time before with respect Jo picked this up.
PAUL STAINTON: And you’ll continue to do that.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: And there’s a lot of work still to do,.
PAUL STAINTON: OK. We’ve got to leave it there, but Stephen, thank you.