Farm workers in Portugal appear to have been working illegally long hours picking berries destined for Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose for less than the minimum wage, according to a Guardian investigation.
Speaking anonymously, for fear of retribution from their employers, workers claimed the hours listed on their payslips were often fewer than the hours they had actually worked.
The workers, mostly from south Asia, are the backbone of Portugal’s £200m berry industry, which employs upwards of 10,000 migrants.
They have been drawn to the country by immigration laws that allow foreigners of all nationalities to gain legal status (and eventually citizenship) through full-time employment and the payment of taxes.
While they dream of what some jokingly call the “raspberry passport”, many migrant workers fear changing jobs would nullify their residency application, despite what they describe as exploitative conditions.
The lack of Portuguese workers in the berry fields is unsurprising, said Alberto Matos, who heads the regional office for migrant rights organisation Solidariedade Imigrante. “Nobody wants to be a slave in their own country.”
In two visits between September and November 2021, the Guardian spoke with more than 40 men and women from India and Nepal, employed either directly or through intermediary agencies, on farms across Odemira, a region to the south of Portugal that bustles with south Asian restaurants and international money transfer services.
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.
The legal minimum wage for agricultural workers in the region in 2021 was €680 (£570) a month, but the Guardian has seen 14 payslips dated from May onwards which appear to show workers earning the general Portuguese national minimum wage for 2021 of €665 a month.
Lusomorango, a Portuguese organisation of soft fruit producers, claimed there was the possibility that workers had since been repaid retroactively.
“Before I came here, I thought Portugal is good work,” said a worker on one of the farms that paid below the legal minimum wage. “I work fast, and they don’t give me the money.” Every month, he sends whatever he can afford to his parents in India. “If I don’t [send money] they don’t eat. That is the problem for me.”
The Guardian also saw seven payslips that appear to show people working beyond the maximum amount of overtime allowed on farms that supply Driscoll’s. One employee worked more than 300 extra hours a month, according to their payslips, far above the 60 hours a week allowed in Odemira by Portuguese law.
Another worker on a farm that supplies Driscoll’s claimed his employers fired him in October last year after he refused to work when he had booked time off. Afterwards, he said he was denied a document that would have allowed him to claim unemployment benefits.
Management at one of the farms that appeared to be underpaying workers said that their berries end up on shelves in Waitrose, M&S and Tesco.
Lusomorango said its berry growers, which include at least two of the farms named as underpaying, or where workers claimed to have done more overtime than allowed, supply UK supermarkets.
Driscoll’s berries are marketed to UK supermarkets by Berry Gardens.
The long hours and low wages seen in payslips would appear to breach the worker welfare standards of Tesco, M&S and Waitrose, and their supplier Driscoll’s.
Waitrose, Tesco and M&S are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which stipulates that workers should be paid wages and benefits that meet national legal standards or industry benchmark standards, whichever is higher.
The ETI base code also states that workers should not work more than 60 hours in any seven-day period, except where this is allowed by national law and collective agreements freely negotiated with workers’ organisations representing a significant portion of the workforce.
Farmworkers interviewed by the Guardian also raised concerns about on-farm health and safety.
Three supervisors, each responsible for managing teams of approximately 40–75 berry pickers on two farms, claimed they had not received first aid training and did not know how to use the first aid boxes on site. Evidence seen by the Guardian suggests the two farms supply their berries to European supermarkets through Driscoll’s.
Two workers on farms supplying Driscoll’s claimed they required hospitalisation after severe allergic reactions to bee stings, yet both allegedly continue to work close todozens of hives. One worker claimed that after informing his boss about his condition, he was expected to continue installing the farm’s bee hives despite the risk involved. “I am scared,” he said. To his knowledge, there was no allergy medication on site, just paracetamol and antiseptics.
Berry Gardens, M&S, Tesco and Waitrose said they were urgently investigating the allegations and would take any action required to ensure their standards on worker welfare were met.
A spokesperson for Driscoll’s said its growers were required to abide by local laws and standards, including on wages, overtime and worksite health and safety. They said a “detailed set of requirements is included in the appendix of the grower’s contract, which specifically addresses the requirements for trained staff, first aid kits and other related topics”.
“If any of our independent growers’ practices conflict with our standards or the local legal framework, Driscoll’s defines corrective actions that, in severe cases of noncompliance, can lead to a termination of the relationship with Driscoll’s.”
The spokesperson said all its growers in Odemira would face a more thorough audit at the start of this year’s season. And that it was working with local and national authorities, government, immigration NGOs and grower associations to provide “safe communication channels to prevent and denounce abuse and harassment”.
Lusomorango said it condemns any acts contrary to those defined in its code of conduct and the law and that it would continue, through its own and external audit mechanisms, to monitor the activity of its producers and would accompany this with training, awareness and information actions in order to prevent and correct any situations that did not in comply.
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