Agriculture and modern slavery – what can co-ops do to tackle the risks of exploitation?

The ILO says agriculture, forestry and fishery have a worldwide problem with forced labour

As a sector reliant on low-skilled seasonal labour, agriculture is vulnerable to modern slavery and other forms of exploitation.

According to International Labour Organization estimates, at global level, agriculture, fishery and forestry are the sectors with the fourth highest proportion of victims of forced labour worldwide.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), which regulates the supply of workers to the agricultural, horticultural and shellfish industries in the UK, also found the agricultural sector at high risk of exploitation and abuse of workers. In a 2018 report, GLAA pointed out that an increasing number of suspected cases were being reported in the UK. It added that in 2017, 5,145 potential victims of modern slavery were submitted to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in the UK, a 35% increase compared with 2016.

The GLAA report also notes that access to, and demand for, migrant labour is likely to be an issue across multiple sectors post Brexit. As entry and working restrictions could be limited following the UK’s exit from the EU, GLAA warns that there may be an increase in illegal working, misrepresentation or false and fraudulent documents being used. The report also adds that a shortage of agricultural workers could determine the sector to its renew calls for the reintroduction of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.

Reporting on actions taken to tackle modern slavery is a requirement for businesses with a turnover of £36m, under Section 54 of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. These enterprises have to explain what steps, if any, they are taking to address modern slavery within their operations and supply chains. These statements must meet three requirements: they must be signed by a director, approved by the board and linked from the company’s homepage.

Yet a 2018 report by from the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab found that the sector was not doing enough to address the risks.

According to the research, only 50% of agricultural companies, which fell within scope of the Modern Slavery Act’s corporate reporting requirement, had published a modern slavery statement one year after the requirements came into force.

Furthermore, only 38% of these statements were compliant with the requirements of the law, meaning overall only 19% of the agricultural sector is abiding by the terms of the Modern Slavery Act. Nearly 80% of statements included nothing regarding the effectiveness of their steps taken to address slavery, despite government guidance advising this.

What can agricultural co-operatives do to address existing risks? The Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS), the expert body for farming collaboration in Scotland, says labour providers in agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering and any associated processing and packaging of these, are assessed to check they meet the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) licensing standards. This applies to several SAOS co-operative members.

The GLAA’s standards cover health and safety, accommodation, pay, transport and training.

SAOS chair Mark Clark is also managing director of Grampian Growers, a co-op specialising in the growing and marketing of daffodil flowers and bulbs, as well as seed and baby potatoes.

He said: “Throughout the year we use various labour agencies here, including Ringlink machinery ring and Be Personnel recruitment. We have a very good relationship with the GLAA and we are the point of contact for our members to ensure that the labour agencies that they themselves are using, are fully registered and compliant.

“We perform the duty of ‘Active Checks’ prior to our flower season commencing and, as a consequence, we will be notified by the GLAA of any changes to the respective licences. For all new workers for Grampian Growers, a copy of the individual’s passport is taken at the point of their induction along with their personal details.

“All aspects of working time regulations, rates of pay, and Health and Safety are covered out at induction. All employees are monitored for their wellbeing while in employment at Grampian Growers, and we are regularly checked via our many industry compliance protocols to ensure there are no irregularities.”

The Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for workers’ rights around the globe, published a practical guidance for brands and retailers who are reporting on actions taken to tackle modern slavery.

The alliance also runs a training course to prepare businesses to report on the issue. The guideline warns that workers provided through a recruiter, agent or an individual can be exploited by them. They may be required to pay to obtain work as a one-off or on-going arrangement or they may be forced to use associated services such as accommodation, or hand over some or most of their earnings, writes the ETI, adding that this form of exploitation may be happening while a worker is treated well at their actual place of work. Another common myth according to the ETI is the idea that only a worker who is physically forced to perform work or services is in forced labour.

“Consent or agreement by a worker to take up or travel to a job is irrelevant if deception, coercion, threats, violence or abuse of the worker’s vulnerability have been used,” added ETI.

Some of the mitigation strategies suggested include provision of legal advice on rights and immigration status; information and access to support organisations that can act on behalf of vulnerable workers or advocate in their interests, specialised support for vulnerable workers, provision of language classes, understanding family circumstances and home context, access to advice on financial and debt management and provision of alternative housing options.