The UK’s largest greenhouse complex, which supplies many of the country’s leading supermarkets, is being investigated following claims that agency workers at its facility in Kent are being treated like “sweatshop labour”.
The Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which regulates agency practices, is looking into complaints lodged by Unite against Thanet Earth, which supplies cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Marks & Spencer and has made a point of emphasising its green credentials.
But the union claims that most of its personnel were employed through four different agencies under a system of permanent casualisation, which meant that they worked without fixed contracts for years and had no job security. They had also systematically been denied holiday pay and been denied work as a result of taking leave, it attests.
Unite regional officer Dave Weeks told the Guardian: “We’re taking our fight to the top of the food chain – those supermarkets that employ Thanet Earth. They have an obligation to make sure workers who help generate their healthy profits are treated fairly from root to basket.”
The union organised protests outside the Broadstairs branches of Tescos and Marks & Spencer last week.
Weeks continued: “We know that many shoppers think if you buy local, you buy ethical – that’s the message Thanet Earth might have you believe – but these workers are being treated like sweatshop labour.”
An unnamed worker agreed. “The agencies have done whatever they want and Thanet Earth and the supermarkets have let them. When we have asked for our rights, we have been told: ‘You can find another job.’ We are disposable people to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S and the rest, despite them agreeing to respect workers’ rights.”
But in a statement Thanet Earth insisted the agencies that supplied its labour were fully audited and licensed by the GLA. All legal safeguards were in place and an internal probe carried out after Unite raised similar allegations in March last year was concluded satisfactorily.
It added that the firm had now invited the GLA to carry out its own investigation after Unite, which it claimed had a “fundamental opposition to the use of agency workers”, made the same accusations again in March this year.
The GLA’s Neil Court told the BBC: “We believe that Thanet Earth Marketing are a responsible company and I don’t think people should have any concerns on the basis of the allegations that have been made. If we find evidence of non-compliance, we will take action against the relevant licensed labour providers…even if that means removing the licence of that labour provider.”
The GLA is expected to announce the findings of its probe in May.