Despite vehement claims that both have been given evidence that the reporting is inaccurate, Channel 4 News has continued with its reporting of the case with this story and Waitrose has indeed suspended its business with Nickle Farm.
A further report on Monday night’s Channel 4 News programme made additional claims and Matt Jarrett, managing director of Pro-Force, once again countered: “We again raise deep concerns about the veracity of the footage Channel 4 News has deployed about living conditions, using a compilation of misrepresentative or incorrect images.
“Regarding any disparity alleged between what workers are promised and what they experience, we have taken recent steps to address this. A flow of agricultural labour into the UK from abroad has been standard in the industry since WWII, to support UK farms in peak season. Many overseas agents facilitate this and provide workers with the option of taking up additional services such as planning and organising travel, organising accommodation and pastoral care (as per the GLA Brief 38). As the relevant legislation makes clear, these are optional services to which the workers can subscribe and are not a work-finding fee, which would be illegal.
“Following a recent inspection from the Gangmasters Licencing Authority (GLA), we conducted our own internal investigation into the practices of overseas agents, which we have only used since 2014 in the new EU countries of Romania and Bulgaria, and became concerned about the choices made available to the workers.
“As a result we made the decision to terminate our contracts with those agents over a month ago and take the whole recruitment process back in-house to eliminate any potential risk to our workers.
“We are aware of an ongoing GLA investigation, which we welcome, and have been able to support their investigation with our own findings. We would urge all labour users and providers to check their supply chain to make sure their staff are clear that they have a choice over paying fees.
“Regarding hours worked and deductions, we are in a highly seasonal business and our clients are not in control of the weather or of how quickly produce ripens. Every effort is made to provide the working hours expected, but if for reasons outside our control we cannot, we waive deductions and offer cash advances.
“If deductions for accommodation have been made despite staff hours falling below the minimum, we need to and will investigate urgently to understand why this has happened. Last week we processed payroll for 1,761 people and had only two queries come back, which were resolved immediately.”
Tommy Leighton comments: “There was widespread condemnation of these reports at today’s National Fruit Show, and a general solidarity that shows that the industry understands that this is something that affects them all, not just those in the direct firing line.
“I personally find it incredible that another supermarket has suspended orders from one of its most loyal and consistent growers when its own recent audit reportedly found no evidence that would back up what Channel 4 is claiming, but this is hard-nosed business and suppliers are rarely given the support that they themselves would be obliged to offer to their customers in hours of apparent need.
“The sad thing about this type of situation is that no-one can come out of this in a particularly good light, whether they have done right, wrong or been slightly indifferent – but self protection is not the only way out of a crisis.”
Following this opinion piece on Produce Business UK this morning (October 20), Pro-Force contacted us with a statement in reply to the Channel 4 News item on packhouse workers’ conditions broadcast on October 19.
Matt Jarrett, managing director of Pro-Force, said: “Pro-Force operates in a highly regulated sector, and is under constant scrutiny by third party auditors, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Health & Safety Executive, HMRC and SEDEX, the “ethical watchdog” for the supermarkets. We are monitored continually, and have never failed any of the numerous unannounced audits carried out, demonstrating our best practice in all aspects of our business.
“We are therefore very disappointed that Channel 4 News has broadcast numerous and wide-ranging allegations of serious wrongdoing, despite Pro-Force having given them extensive evidence that its allegations were unfounded and its sources of information lacked credibility.
“When we were contacted by Channel 4 News with its claims, we informed them that the living conditions they described – we were not shown footage – bore no relation to the standards of the accommodation we supply, which is audited frequently by regulators as well as weekly by our welfare officers.
“Now we have seen the footage Channel 4 News has deployed to make its allegations, Pro-Force can confirm it is in fact a compilation of images of: a toilet and damaged wall from an old, disused porta-cabin that had been broken into; a surplus, disconnected sink in a caravan that was due for removal and which until recently only had a hairline fracture; and close up views of a couple of damp patches – common when vents are closed – in an otherwise clean and tidy caravan. These must have been edited together to create the impression Channel 4 News clearly wanted to portray. It is not footage of a worker’s caravan, contrary to the assertions made by Channel 4 News.
“A further example of misrepresentation is the claim of workers suffering sickness from a “leaking” air conditioning unit. We gave Channel 4 News unambiguous evidence from the air conditioning engineer (who is not employed by Pro-Force or its client) that the fluid used in the system is non-toxic, that none escaped and that the mist was condensing air. Channel 4 News ignored this conclusive evidence that there could be no sickness from fumes.
“We adhere to all the legal standards governing our industry. However, Pro-Force strives to go beyond these, always looking for improvement in all areas. We have a number of ways for workers to report, anonymously, any problems with their working conditions or living arrangements. Our workers are our greatest asset, and we’re committed to ensuring they have a rewarding experience working with us.
“Despite this, we accept there are some areas we want to look into further – such as how staff are communicated with, how clearly they understand that, for example, overtime is optional. Should this uncover any area for improvement, we will rectify problems and review processes as necessary, in our ongoing efforts to be the leading labour provider in our field.
“Channel 4 News has not shown the typical experiences of our workers, 70% of whom are returnees, coming back to us year after year. That is a clear testament to our dedication to high welfare standards.”
• Tommy Leighton comments: “As I wrote in the original opinion piece, 'There is always an agenda at play when a programme is looking for news'. It is not any more useful or right for me to judge the standard of the journalism than the validity of the journalist’s claims at this stage, but if what Pro-Force has counterclaimed is true, then it is not just the industry that is left with a case to answer.”