FW Mansfield & Son has issued a strong rebuttal to allegations of worker mistreatment at one of its key fruit packing sites in Kent.
The business said that the Channel 4 News report was "false", and that it painted a "highly selective and completely distorted and unrepresentative picture of our business."
The network's investigation claimed to have unearthed an extremely high-pressure working culture at the retail-supplying business, where workers were allegedly denied the right to take sufficient breaks, and footage purporting to show "one of the best" caravans workers lived in at the Mansfields-owned site appeared to be in a dilapidated state.
A spokesperson for Mansfields said it is investigating the allegations. Its customers, including Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's, have all launched their own investigations into the claims. Another key customer, Aldi, has suspended its orders with Mansfields.
A spokesperson for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), meanwhile, said: “The GLA can confirm that a number of labour users have been visited in the south east of England as part of an investigation into alleged unlicensed labour provision.
"This is very much an active inquiry, which began some time before we were approached by Channel 4 and, as such, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage. We look forward to working with the news producers to see what additional evidence that might be able to provide that could assist our investigations.”
The vast majority of workers at the site in question, Nickle Farm, reportedly arrived in the UK via Romanian employment agencies, and were provided to Mansfields in the UK by a labour provider called Pro-Force.
One worker told Channel 4 reporter Siobhan Kennedy that when they entered their caravan upon arrival at the farm, "it smelled like a corpse": "The first evening when I went in there you couldn't breathe, the smell was unbearable, you could have fainted, they are not fit for humans," the woman, whose identity was withheld, said.
Yet according to Channel 4, when she complained about the standard, she and her partner were reportedly told to leave if they weren't happy.
Channel 4 also shot footage in the packhouse, with managers shouting at staff to work ever harder. During one part of the footage aired on TV, workers asked their boss for a short break to have water. The manager responded: "If you don't want to work I'm going to send this whole team home, ok? And I'm going to get other people in."
One anonymous worker at the site also told Channel 4 that when supermarkets come to do their audits, the work lines are deliberately slowed down, and the packhouse is cleaned - an allegation both Mansfields and Pro-Force deny.
Responding to the footage, one member of the UK apple industry, who did not wish to be named, told FPJ that he feared the Channel 4 News investigation had painted an inaccurate picture of worker treatment in the top-fruit packing sector.
He said: "It would be wrong for there to be a knee-jerk reaction to what is effectively the state of one guy’s caravan. This type of accommodation is pretty much the standard for apple workers across the UK and everything is audited on a regular basis.
"The vast majority of temporary workers in the British apple industry come over here from eastern Europe to earn money and send it home. They’re earning the minimum wage, and the industry is not short of workers who work hard and are happy with their accommodation."