Brexit may have made this a hot topic, but serious issues over worker standards and inequalities in the food chain were evident well before we voted to leave the European Union last year. How do we ensure we have enough workers, and that they are treated equitably in the future?

Hundreds and thousands of food workers have planted, fished, hauled, picked, packed, chopped, filled, repacked, boxed, delivered and served our food this winter. Did they get decent wages and civilized working conditions?

Some will have, but many sadly did not. The recent shocking case of appalling worker abuse in the egg supply chain – which followed an exposé by The Guardianis sadly just the tip of an abuse iceberg.

It is just one example of exploitation of vulnerable workers in the food system and it is good to see the case going to court. But it took a major exposé and considerable resources.  What is clearly needed is transparency, well-staffed enforcement of strong worker regulation and specific measures to help workers to organise so they can make demands to get decent conditions themselves. In addition to better regulation, effective unions are key in providing support, legal back up and advice. Consumers too need to demand proof of fair working when they buy food in a shop or restaurant.

Underlying these solutions, there needs to be far more attention given to where the value goes in food supply chains. In reality, it has been siphoned off for corporate profits to the detriment of workers, farmers and the environment. And with Brexit and new trade deals pushing on basic standards, further risks lie ahead. We need to take action.

This applies particularly to migrant workers who can lack access to key information and ways to organise, given the language and cultural barriers they face. Food manufacturing was the sector with the highest share of foreign-born labour in 2015, hence the huge risk from Brexit to our food supply and the reason why we need better worker conditions, not a race to the bottom, for food workers from vegetable pickers to restaurants chefs and waiters. Farmers producing food sustainably and already heavily reliant on migrants and treating them well are also in jeopardy.  

For farm workers, the loss of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in England in 2013 was bad news. Fortunately in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, such Boards still exists to ensure that, to some extent, farm workers can negotiate effectively for decent working conditions. But in England where the AWB would have protected some 120,000 salaried workers, that safety net has been lost. 

The AWB negotiations were never just about wages but about wider, farm specific and crucial issues such as beds and accommodation, dog allowances, transport, holiday, additional equipment needed and so on. These made a crucial difference to workers in this sector. All that has gone and now they merely get the National Minimum Wage and other statutory minimum terms of employment. With farmers struggling to make a living, imagine how much harder must it be for the workers.

Sustain and its union members are campaigning to have a sectoral bargaining system reinstated in England, as well as wider systemic changes, so the financial value of food purchases can get to where it is needed.

Further down the food chain, new powers do exist to take action. The British company in the egg case was the first to be found liable for victims of modern slavery in a landmark high court judgment. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority, originally set up to regulate businesses in the fresh produce supply chain and horticulture industry, is to be renamed the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and it gained extended powers under The Immigration Act 2016. Its remit now covers exploitation across the entire UK labour market, which means 21 times more workers.

Serious concerns exist about the ability of the GLAA to function effectively. It has few new staff and its powers will be inadequate to cover its significantly expanded remit. Additionally, there is a risk that its structures prohibit genuine negotiations between workers and employers mediated by independent body. Unions are rightly concerned that it is now all about the very worst of cases – which are of course important – but missing the ongoing misery of poor standards for many workers. In addition, pitiful levels of enforcement officers will be combined with the challenge of Brexit and new potentially liberalised trading and non EU labour standards.

Sustain has a new strand of work to demand better conditions for workers in our food supply. Get in touch if you want to be involved.


Vicki Hird is Sustainable Farm Campaign Coordinator at London Food Link, part of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming and leading expert on food and farming issues.

She is speaking at the first event in the 2017 Food Talks series: WORKERS: Who’s going to make our food in the future? The other speaker is Donald Hirsch (Director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University – expert on social policy and what people need for an acceptable standard of living). 

The event takes place on Thursday 30th March 2017 (6.30-9pm) at the Impact Hub King’s Cross, and is brought to you by Impact Hub Kings Cross in partnership with the Food Ethics CouncilOrganico, Think.Eat.Drink and Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. 

For more information and to attend the event, please click here.