Berry Gardens to investigate exploitation claims

The berry marketer is working to fully investigate and address claims made in a Guardian investigation of worker exploitation in Portugal

UK-based berry grower-marketer Berry Gardens says it is taking allegations raised in a Guardian newspaper investigation of berry picker exploitation in Portugal “very seriously”.

Nick Allen, chief executive officer at Berry Gardens, told FPJ that his organisation is currently working with all parties involved to fully investigate and address the claims made.

A report in today’s (25 January) Guardian alleges that farm workers across Odemira, southern Portugal, appear to have been working illegally long hours picking berries for Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose for less than the minimum wage.

Evidence seen by the Guardian suggests that workers who were either underpaid or worked more than the maximum overtime limit were employed by at least three farms which supply their berries to European supermarkets through the California-based berry seller Driscoll’s. Driscoll’s berries are marketed to UK supermarkets by Berry Gardens.

Responding to the Guardian report, Allen said: “As a business, we are committed to ensuring all the fruit that we supply to UK retailers is grown, harvested, packed, and distributed with care for the environment and respecting all those people involved in the supply chain.

“Worker welfare and ethical compliance are paramount to Berry Gardens and all parties we work with both in the UK and internationally must strive to attain and commit to the highest ethical standards.”

The Guardian said that the long hours and low wages seen in worker payslips would appear to breach the worker welfare standards of Tesco, M&S, Waitrose and their supplier Driscoll’s.

Farmworkers interviewed by the Guardian also raised concerns about onfarm health and safety. Evidence seen by the Guardian suggests two farms that allegedly did not provide first-aid training to picker supervisors supply their berries to European supermarkets through Driscoll’s. Two other workers on farms supplying Driscoll’s claimed they required hospitalisation after severe allergic reactions to bee stings, yet both allegedly continue to work close to dozens of hives.

“We take allegations such as those raised in this investigation very seriously,” Allen told FPJ. “In this case, all Driscoll’s farms noted will have had independent annual ethical audits which cover all aspects of social practice, on top of the relevant government inspections which are an essential part of our due diligence processes. We are currently working with all those parties involved to fully investigate and address the claims made.”

Meanwhile, Driscoll’s responded to the claims made in the Guardian report, telling Fruitnet it does not tolerate any breach of local or international labour laws at farms in Portugal where its fruit is grown.

According to Driscoll’s, wages and contracted hours – including overtime – for workers picking its berries in Odemira are defined by a policy called the Collective Work Agreement.

That document, it said, is negotiated every year by the regional producer association AHSA and agricultural workers’ syndicate SETTAB. “All our independent growers are required to comply to these regulations.” said a spokesperson.

Fruitnet also understands that Driscoll’s recently introduced an “even more thorough” compliance programme in Odemira. As a result, it says, all independent growers in the region will be audited more strictly from the start of the 2022 season.

“We are aware [of the] recent media publication regarding labour conditions in the Portuguese Odemira region,” said the spokesperson. “As a family-owned business, we fully understand our responsibility to provide a framework for decent working and living conditions for workers throughout our supply chain.

“We are committed to growing in harmony with the environment and the communities we depend on. We want to ensure the harvesters picking our berries are treated with respect and dignity.“

The company said it would continue working with independent growers in Portugal to ensure workers continued to be treated “with consideration and respect” in clean, safe workplaces.