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SLAVE LABOUR; Plight of foreign fruit pickers who are paid peanuts by gangmasters.

Byline: FIONNUALA BOURKE

IT is 5am and another white Ford Transit minibus passes through a deserted street. Packed full of immigrant workers, it is one of many winding their way through innercity Birmingham to fruit farms across the Midlands countryside.

It is the start of another busy day for farm labourers employed by gangmasters to pick and pack fresh produce for the multi-million pound food industry.

A week ago three of their colleagues were killed in a Worcestershire onion field when their van collided with a train at an unmanned crossing.

How could it have happened? One possible explanation is that the driver could not speak English and did not understand the 'Stop' sign by the railway gates.

The deaths have hit the community of labourers hard and they are in mourning for the three men from Iraq, India and Bangladesh, who could only be identified by their fingerprints.

ExploitingBut the tragedy has also brought the farm labourers' working lives and the practices of their bosses into the spotlight.

The pickers come from all over the world to work on UK farms in jobs with low pay and long hours that have failed to attract local employees.

Most are in this country legitimately -but a large number of them are here illegally. Many can barely speak a word of English.

Research has highlighted a series of malpractices among some unscrupulous gangmasters who have been accused of exploiting the foreign workers and dodging taxes.

Some of the labourers earn as little as pounds 10 a day while their bosses make huge profits. It has been known for them to take a cut from wages to pay for the workers' accommodation in rundown inner city estates miles away from the fields. Every morning they are picked up from Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Coventry and ferried to the Vale of Evesham, often not returning until 7pm each evening.

Most of the locals in the countryside barely know of their existence. All they see is the fleet of minibuses arriving first thing in the morning and leaving last thing at night. Harvest manager Marco Pirelli said that the labourers' work was vital. The farm he works on in Bidford-on-Avon employs local people as well as workers supplied by a contractor based in Dudley. The farmer pays the contractor who, in turn, pays the labourers. The farm does not know how much cash the labourers receive.

Mr Pirelli said: 'The contractors speak good English and their drivers know the language. We make sure that they know all the health and safety regulations on the farm. 'All of our labourers are vetted thoroughly before we take them on.

'It is just not worth employing workers who do not have the correct documentation.

'A number of the farms around here have been raided. There have been problems with illegal immigrants and people claiming the dole while they work.'

Research by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an alliance of companies, non-governmental organisations and trade unions, has found that the system is riddled with criminal activity.

It is estimated that some 72,000 people are employed across the country as farm labourers on a temporary basis -50 per cent of whom are supplied by gangmasters.

The ETI has found evidence that some of the bosses do not pay the minimum wage, unlawfully take deductions from wages and sometimes employ illegal immigrants and under-age workers, too.

RegulationFurther evidence has shown that other gangmasters have failed to pay tax and national insurance contributions.

Legitimate Worcestershire gangmaster Zad Padda is disgusted by the malpractices and is campaigning for a system of regulation which he believes will help stamp them out.

'We need to have proper regulation for part-time workers on the farms,' he said. 'There are a lot of corrupt practices that need to be stopped. 'The only way to do this is to provide proper registration for the gangmasters. I am campaigning with the Transport and General Workers' Union for this.'

The Government has taken several steps to eradicate the malpractices, including Operation Gangmaster, which was launched in 1998.

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said that several Worcestershire farms had been raided during its investigations, which are still ongoing.

Meanwhile the inquest into the deaths of the three workers who lost their lives opens tomorrow.

CAPTION(S):

IN THE FIELDS ... Workers are often brought in by minibus to join fruit-picking gangs. A journey ended in tragedy, right, on a railway line near Evesham last week; HARD WORK ... Foreign workers spend hours in the fields picking fruit and vegetables
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jul 13, 2003
Words:760
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