Opinion

Industry should take collective perspective on C4 News allegations

20 October 2015

Tommy Leighton - PBUK

I’m not going to pass premature judgement on what millions of viewers of Channel 4 News watched last night – as the programme said, customers Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose are investigating allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers at FW Mansfield’s Nickle Farm, and Aldi has already reportedly suspended orders from the UK’s largest fruit grower. 

Click here to watch the report and read the article that was written around the item on the C4 News website.

There is always an agenda at play when a programme is looking for news and the migrant worker story is guaranteed to resonate at this juncture. But whatever your view on undercover reporting, there was some pretty damning stuff aired. The emotive language is nothing new, but some of the images of the living accommodation were horrific. If any of it is true, then there are a questions to answer for both Pro-Force, the recruitment agency who provide the workers for Nickle Farm and the temporary homes for many of those workers, and Mansfield’s. 

If the living conditions are the direct responsibility of Pro-Force, worker welfare is also the responsibility of Mansfield’s and it must be said, its customers, who demand ultra-high service levels at low prices.

It’s interesting to note that the larger supermarkets, who rely on Mansfield’s for a large volume of English apples they perhaps couldn’t get elsewhere, are merely investigating at this stage, while Aldi, which won’t be buying anything like that volume, has apparently cut ties with immediate effect. 

But what should a buyer be asking themselves when something like this happens?

The potential damage to the reputation of your brand by association with this story is important of course, as is in some cases the potential loss of value of your shares to your shareholders. Perhaps that is why Aldi has allegedly suspended orders. Having to find somewhere else from which to source all that fruit to fill your shelves at a peak time for English apple sales is a huge problem (probably impossible as Mansfield’s is such a huge player) and English top-fruit is a major driver at this time of year. Not having that fruit would risk losing shoppers in the run up to Christmas. Maybe this is the reason why the other trio are investigating rather than pulling out straight away. 

It just may be because they see the bigger picture though. By suspending its orders – if indeed that happens to be true – it could be argued that Aldi would not be helping matters all that much. There was no implied food-safety issue; in fact the programme more than once said how efficiently the packhouse was running due to the stringent regime of the packhouse managers. The real issue is worker welfare – and is it really helping those workers if you simply cut ties? The better course of action would be to support Nickle Farm through the process of clearing up whatever mess it might be in – ensuring that every single worker on the farm is being treated fairly and putting the checks and measures in place to further ensure that this continues in the long term. I don't know what Waitrose, M&S or Sainsbury’s are actually doing to investigate, but I’d imagine there is some desire to correct, rather than condemn.

It is easy to take the moral high ground and remove yourself from responsibility in situations like this. But buyers could do worse than look at what causes companies to tread the boundaries of fair play in the first place. Migrant workers are being paid the minimum wage to work long hours because the supermarket chains require efficiency levels that are by their nature extremely hard to attain for a produce company. Could they pay a little more per kilo on the condition that this type of story never happens again? Too many English apples are sold on promotion anyway – the consumer is prepared to pay a fair price for home-grown fruit – and it wouldn’t take a wild flight of fancy for a retailer (or all retailers for that matter) to pay 5p or 10p extra a kilo and pass that on to customers by removing some of the price promotion, in order to oblige growers and gangmasters to invest more further down the line.

The British Retail Consortium refused to come on the programme to represent its members views, because, it said, the Gangmaster Licensing Authority is involved in a wider investigation of the Romanian agencies that provide the workers to Pro-Force initially. Neither Pro-Force or Mansfield’s were represented directly on the show either.

So there were as many questions as answers and as I say, this is not a time to leap to conclusions, but clearly this is not a happy hour for the fruit industry. There was no suggestion that the quality of the product was being jeopardised, but shoppers care about the treatment of the workforce who pick and pack their fruit and some of the images were there to shock – and did.

On the other side of the coin, the alleged over-pressurisation of workers in the packhouse looked bad in the context of the piece, but realistically, it wasn’t all that terrible. Workers in all sorts of industries are expected to work fast and hard throughout their shifts and most of us will have experienced unpleasant management at some point in our lives – that’s not a crime. Claims that Nickle Farm slows down its packing lines and cleans up more vigilantly when its customers come to audit sound a little unlikely, but again, let’s wait and see what the investigations decide.

I’d be surprised though if anyone who doesn’t work in the food industry watched the programme and was not at least a little disturbed. There were whispers around that this was coming. And other national news organisations have been sniffing around the produce industry as a fairly obvious target for news surrounding treatment of migrant workers. All this as the nation wrings its hands over immigration and the focus remains on the scurrilous gangs overseas that are sending people into the UK with no due care for their wellbeing.

Obviously, the response is already being formulated. Unfortunately, as bad news goes, this is not an isolated case. It is only three months since Andrew Stocker was jailed for manslaughter  after two workers died at the Hampshire fruit farm he managed, and this is another blow for the top-fruit sector.

The industry can look at the fact that margins are tight, expectations are high and the consequences for failure to hit performance targets are dire. I think the vast majority of us would agree though, that whatever the pressures on a business and however attractive the options to cut corners, there will never be an acceptable excuse for mistreating fellow human beings.

It’s the National Fruit Show this week and this will obviously be the story on everyone’s lips. But in the interest of the domestic fruit industry, it would be far better if people at the production end too were to accept that when something like this surfaces, the whole industry has an issue to deal with, rather than go with the natural instinct, which is to distance oneself from what the nation has seen and insist that it couldn’t happen on your watch.

Paul Mansfield is one of the most successful British fruit growers in history, but it has allegedly happened on his.

Produce Business UK welcomes letters to the editor and other input from the industry. If you wish to respond to an article on Produce Business UK or join the conversation on any industry issue, please send your thoughts to [email protected]

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