The horsemeat scandal must go beyond food safety – food should also be slavery-free

18th Feb 2013

The horsemeat scandal raises serious concerns about food supply chains. Retailers and caterers need to ensure food is slavery-free too, says Louise Woodruff.

The current horsemeat scandal raises serious concerns about our food supply chains, as Fraser Nelson argued so well last week. The same economic pressure to supply this food cheaply applies to the labour costs as well as to the cost of the raw material. There are serious questions about the complex nature of the supply chains and the conditions and experiences of those low-paid workers who produce, process and pack our food.  

We already know that migrant workers are being exploited in different parts of the food industry. The workers in our study told of:

  • paying upfront fees to work;
  • excessive workplace surveillance, including problems taking breaks;
  • overcrowded tied accommodation;
  • racism, threats and bullying;
  • fear of dismissal that ensured workers remained compliant; and
  • a range of infringements on pay. 

Most of this exploitation was linked to informal gangmasters. Other evidence shows that long supply chains and high levels of subcontracting facilitate forced labour.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) conducted a wide-ranging Inquiry into the Meat and Poultry Processing Sectors. The inquiry found there was widespread mistreatment of agency workers, especially pregnant and migrant workers. While progress has been made by the industry in a number of areas, EHRC points to several areas where problems persist: discrimination against agency workers, and workers not being able to feed in confidentially to ethical audits carried out by supermarkets. The UK Human Trafficking Centre estimates that around 19 per cent of ‘trafficking for labour’ exploitation victims are in the food and processing and agriculture sectors.

These extremes of labour exploitation are thankfully only found in a small segment of the huge UK food industry. Indeed, the supermarkets have put in place a system of ethical auditing to inspect the workplaces of their suppliers and support the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which plays a vital role in tackling unscrupulous labour providers. However, as the evidence, plus cases like that recently exposed in Kent show, there remains a serious problem.

This horsemeat scandal should act as a catalyst for retailers and caterers to re-examine their supply chains, to ensure our food is not only safe to eat, but also slavery-free.