At the end of August 250 Eastern European workers, picking strawberries for S&A Produce at Brierley, near Leominster, organised a road blockade in protest at their dreadful pay and conditions. S&A employs 1,500 migrant workers under the UK’s seasonal agricultural workers scheme which allows Eastern Europeans to come to Britain to work for a limited period. It is a huge operation, planting more than 20 million strawberry plants every year.
Workers pay “gangmasters” hundreds of pounds to come to the UK; S&A workers, no doubt fairly typically, are also liable for a variety of “charges” which mean that they end up paying a large part of their wages back to the company. The company charges £26.25 a week for accommodation in a mobile home, a £3 a week “facility charge” for sewers and waste collection, £2 a week for electricity, £2 a week for social club membership, plus a hire charge for cutlery, crockery bedding and heaters, together with a one off charge of £30 for a “welfare and pastoral service”! All this comes out of a wage of £4.85 an hour.
In addition to being paid what amounts to little more than pocket money, S&A workers are expected to follow a complex set of rules that treats them like children. The company’s “model village” set-up, with workers dependent on their managers and isolated from contact without the outside world, is obviously intended to foster this culture.
The GMB produced a report earlier this year which documented numerous examples of the way in which other similar migrant workers are treated.
These included total disregard for the minimum wage, workers not being given written contracts, unlawful deductions from pay for accommodation or travel, rent as high as £70 a week for squalid and often shared bedding, workers being forced to surrender passports to employers and sexual harassment of women workers by shift managers and representatives of the gangmasters. A recent Citizens Advice Bureau report gave similar examples, including workers left with as little as £6 a week to live on after deductions.
The Blair government has proposed new laws to regulate the gangmasters, but they specifically exclude many workers in food processing and packaging. Moreover, S&A was acting entirely within the law when its super-exploitation forced its workers to protest.
The S&A workers’ demand that they should be allowed to work more hours to improve their take-home pay is obviously not the right one to make. But their decision to take collective action against the aggressive demands of their employer was absolutely right.