British supermarkets were under renewed pressure to clean up abuses in their supply chains yesterday as a Guardian investigation revealed that 40 Bulgarians found by the authorities to be illegally employed and exploited by a gangmaster in Cornwall were picking and packing vegetables destined for Tesco and Morrisons. The Bulgarians said they were forced to "live like pigs on scraps", scavenging vegetables from the fields when their Latvian gangmaster withheld their pay for 34 days.
They were sent to work through a subcontracting chain at Southern England Farms, a leading vegetable farming and packing company that appears on Tesco's website as one of its flagship local producers of courgettes, cauliflowers and cabbage. They were housed in dirty caravans, with seven trying to sleep in a six-berth van in one example. They were initially charged ¡ê50 a week each for this overcrowded accommodation.
Yesterday the Gangmaster Licensing Authority announced that it had revoked the gangmaster's licence and ordered his company, Baltic Work Team, to cease trading immediately.
Mark Boleat, chairman of the gangmasters' organisation, the Association of Labour Providers, said supermarkets should be checking their subcontracting chains more thoroughly. "Malpractice is generally covered up with subcontracting; it's known that's how it is hidden. Retailers should be monitoring them," he said.
Members of the group of 40 Bulgarians in Cornwall said they had been charged up to €900 (¡ê600) by an agent in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, for cheap bus tickets and the promise of work permits which never materialised. When they arrived in the UK they were handed over to a different agent, Andris Tiltnieks, and his company Baltic Work Team and told to pay an extra ¡ê100 or return home. Baltic was used as a subcontractor by a further gangmaster, Elite Labour Services, which was in turn contracted by the Tesco and Morrisons supplier, Southern England Farms, to provide it with...
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