The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has urged the government to do more to ensure the safety of supply chain workers, following revelations of labour abuses at farms supplying UK supermarkets.
Earlier this week, Italian prosecutor Paola Guglielmi revealed that an investigation had found incidences of labour abuses in the supply chains of two Italian food giants: Mutti and Conserve Italia, which supply major UK supermarkets with tinned tomatoes and passata.
The investigation was triggered by the death of a Sudanese farm worker, who suffered a heart attack while working in a tomato field in Nardo, southern Italy, where most of the country’s US$3.7bn-a-year tomato industry is based, according to The Guardian.
Guglielmi said investigators found workers at the farm supplying Mutti and Conserve Italia’s brand Cirio had been kept in horrific conditions with no access to medical care, with both firms “benefitting from conditions of absolute exploitation”.
Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the BRC, said the case highlighted the vulnerability of supply chain workers, which authorities needed to address.
“This is a tragic case and we expect the Italian authorities to carry out a full investigation,” he said.
“Where laws have been broken, we expect the perpetrators to brought to justice.”
Andrews added that the welfare of workers in supply chains was of upmost importance and that BRC members would investigate any allegations of malpractice.
He said that retailers in the UK had put in place mechanisms to protect their supply chains, including codes of conduct and training but that it needed to be supported by “effective government enforcement of labour standards”.
The farm worker was reportedly hired under a so-called gangmaster system, where migrants, both legal and illegal, are divided into informal work groups and hired by Italian landowners to tend and harvest crops, according to Guglielmi.
She said investigators found the gangmasters forced their workers to work for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, on minimal wage, with no access to medical care.
Despite legal efforts to crack down on such abuses, there are still many rural farming communities where it continues.
Responding to the investigations, a spokesperson for Conserve Italia said that its suppliers agree to “respect” their workers and the company’s ethical code.
It added that Conserve Italia had cut ties with the particular supplier involved in the death of the worker named in the investigation.
In a statement to The Guardian, Mutti said it had “always been committed to fight any exploitation of workers’ systems by all means”.
It said it selects it farmers and agricultural partners with special care and maintains a constant dialogue with them across the whole supply chain.
Meanwhile, David Metcalf, director of Labour Market Enforcement, said the government should consider enforcing an embargo on goods made in factories that fail to pay workers the minimum wage.
Speaking to a parliamentary inquiry into the recommendations made by the recent Taylor Review into modern working practices, Metcalf said if HM Revenue and Customs imposed an embargo on goods from factories that did not pay correct wages, it would give retailers a strong incentive to ensure they only operate with compliant supply chains.
He added that the UK should consider making the major companies at the head of the supply chain jointly liable for the behaviour of their manufacturers, which would involve “naming and shaming” as well as the potential embargos.