Union tells supermarkets – you can stop ‘sweatshop’ conditions at Thanet Earth

27 April 2011

First protest to target local flagship Tesco and M&S stores – campaigners dressed as vegetables will ‘put bosses in the stocks’

DATE: Thursday 28 April 2011
TIME: 4pm- 5pm Tesco; 5.30pm-6.30pm Marks & Spencer
LOCATIONS: Tesco 475 Margate Road, Westwood, Broadstairs, Kent, CT10 2QJ; and M&S Dept Store A, West Cross Shopping Centre, Broadstairs, Kent, CT10 2QJ

Migrant workers, trade unionists and local campaigners are pushing for Kent agricultural producer Thanet Earth and supermarket buyers to stop exploiting workers.

The protest will see working ’fruit and veg’ inform Kent supermarket shoppers of the alleged abuse of vulnerable workers by one of the county’s leading producer companies, Thanet Earth.

Unite, the county’s biggest union, which has organised the protest, has submitted serious allegations raised by the workforce to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the government body responsible for regulating agency practices. The alleged offences include: agency employees in positions of authority taking cash and gifts for work; systematic denial of paid holidays and holiday pay; discrimination against workers taking holidays who are then denied work; and years of employment on a casualised basis, without fixed contracts.

Further, requests for union recognition have been denied by Thanet Earth which claims to be an ethical employer and claims to be one of the greenest employers in the sector.

In peak season some 300 people work at the futuristic facility in Thanet where cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes are grown, picked and packed, supplying the UK’s supermarket with salad crops.

Current buyers are Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Asda.

“We are treated like sweatshop labour”, says migrant worker and Unite member Aneta*. “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.”

In the run up to Thanet Earth harvesting operation in 2009, the company promised 500 jobs for local people in one of the most depressed regions of the UK. Almost two years on, the vast majority of the workforce still have no permanent contract, no job security and work through four different agencies in a system of permanent casualisation.

In 2010 Thanet Earth introduced a second agency – HRGO – into the pack house, creating more competition and insecurity for workers and resulting in the scrapping of the weekly rota system and forcing workers to telephone their agency on a daily basis for work.

Unite the union has submitted evidence to the Ethical Trading Initiative and Gangmaster Licensing Authority about these conditions.

Unite regional officer Dave Weeks said: “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. 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 have being treated like sweatshop labour.”

Local trades council representative John Flaig added: “Thanet Earth claims to be green but a green job should be an ethical job, with workers treated with respect.”