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Growing pains: Fears for migrant workers who carry the load of Ireland's horticulture boom

Noteworthy explores long working hours, low pay and other concerning conditions for seasonal employees in the sector.
Dec 18th 2020, 12:05 AM 16,522 15

HORTICULTURE, WHILE TAKING up less than 1% of Irish agricultural land, packs an economic punch, worth €476m last year and directly employing 6,600 workers

The sector runs a gamut of production types, sizes, scale and income levels, from traditional potatoes and carrots all the way to Christmas trees and ornamental plants.

And there are plans to grow. The Government’s Food Wise 2025 strategy outlines ambitious 60% growth in primary production.

With plans to also create 23,000 jobs along the supply chain, then-Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed stated in May 2017 that investment in people is “crucial” for its success. 

Migrants workers and labour rights experts who spoke to us, however, are concerned that not enough is being done to address the likes of long working hours and low rates of pay for those currently working in the industry. 

Following an investigation in collaboration with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) - we can highlight: 

  • Concerns about labour conditions in the mushroom industry in the border area, according to a two-year cross-border research project, members of which spoke to the investigation team about their findings.  
  • A 2018 survey carried out by Teagasc and released through Freedom of Information (FOI) that indicates the horticulture industry faces difficulty in retaining staff due in part to low wages, poor working conditions, lack of suitable accommodation and poor recruitment skills. 
  • An analysis of Workplace Relations Commission data released through FOI shows that it uncovered almost €185,000 in unpaid wages since 2017, affecting over 3,300 employees in the soft fruit and mushroom sectors. 

Shifting workforce

While traditionally, soft fruit and mushroom picking were largely a local affair, a 2018 Teagasc survey found that 77% of the workforce is now made up of foreign nationals, predominantly from Eastern European countries, including the Baltic States, Bulgaria and Romania. 

According to Europol, seasonal workers from this region are vulnerable to exploitation. A pan-European investigation earlier this year identified 44 suspects of human trafficking for labour exploitation and over 300 victims, many from Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania.

Ireland was not involved in this investigation, either in the investigative process, or the area of work of the migrants, and no links were identified related to any Irish companies.

In Northern Ireland, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has conducted several investigations into unlicensed labour on fruit farms in recent years. For example, in October 2016, a Romanian national was sentenced to 30 months for trafficking people for exploitation to work in agriculture.  

While there are no such cases on record south of the border, there are still significant labour rights issues in the mushroom sector, according to labour rights experts, academics and researchers working on the Crossing Borders, Breaking Boundaries (CBBB) project on working conditions for migrants along the border region.

Concerns continue to this day

The mushroom industry is our largest horticultural sector with a farm gate value of just under €120 million in 2019 and employing over 3,500 people

Labour is one of the main costs in the horticultural sector, with the industry working to tight margins that don’t allow for substantial increases in wages. According to Teagasc, labour makes up 45% of all input costs for the sector.  

Labour is a very significant cost in commercial mushroom production, in particular, with the export-dominated sector also prone to external shocks with 80% of production exported to the UK. 

The sector, according to the Irish Farmers’ Association, was “thrown into turmoil” by Brexit for example, with several businesses going under as a result. 

Much like the horticulture sector generally, mushroom growers also face difficulties with recruitment of staff and shortages of labour on a near annual basis. 

In February 2020, following a survey of mushroom growers, Teagasc estimated that the sector was facing a shortage of almost 440 workers. Labour shortages in horticulture were further impacted by Covid-19. 

Concerns over labour in the sector already came to the fore in Ireland in the mid-2000s, however for different reasons, with campaigns led by SIPTU and Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) raising concerns with conditions for workers in the industry. 

MRCI went on to set up a support group in 2006 for almost 450 mushroom workers. It carried out mediation on their behalf that led to an estimated recovery of €250,000 in back wages from around 20 farms. 

This was followed up by academic research in 2014 from universities in the North into the mushroom industry in Northern Ireland, including interviews with workers, that highlighted similar concerns raised by MRCI and SIPTU. 

MRCI still has concerns over long working hours and low pay identified in the mid-2000s, according to Edel McGinley, the Director of MRCI that is involved with the Crossing Borders, Breaking Boundaries project. She said that conditions outlined to them by current mushroom workers are “consistent with our research over the years”.

Edel McGinley Edel McGinley, director of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland Source: MRCI

The overall CBBB project findings have received praise from the Minister of State with responsibility for Community Development, Joe O’Brien, as well as the Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.  

Last year, as part of the project, Ulster University produced a research paper based on interviews with eight mushroom workers in counties Armagh and Cavan.

The research team have now engaged with just over 50 workers from Bulgaria, Latvia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Romania, with many interviewed through an interpreter and completing a detailed questionnaire.

Dr Stephen Bloomer of Ulster University, one of the project researchers, told the investigation team that the overall research findings provide contemporary evidence to confirm that:

Quote from Dr Stephen Bloomer of Ulster University... Some workers in the cross border mushroom industry continue to experience poor working conditions, low pay rates, inadequate terms and conditions of employment, and less than optimum employment practices.

We sent a series of questions on the issues raised by the CBBB project team to Commercial Mushrooms Producers (CMP) that represents 90% of Irish mushroom production and growers in Ireland.

CMP did not respond to the specific questions posed but said that its members “operate to the highest standards” and are “independently audited by Bord Bia and Sedex”. 

“Our Members are compliant with the Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit, which is the most widely used social audits in the world,” CMP added. 

Bord Bia – the state agency promoting Irish food – operates a Sustainable Horticulture Assurance Scheme (SHAS) to provide members with a means to prove to customers they grow and package food “to the highest standards”.

Bord Bia audit data from 2019 and 2020 shows that no mushroom farms failed to pass an audit and none were found to be non-compliant during this period.

Several workers, who spoke to the investigation team on the condition of anonymity, however, did raise similar concerns to those highlighted by the cross-border project. 

Long working hours

Anna*, a mushroom harvester from the Baltic region who works for Monaghan Mushrooms, told us through a translator that she often works up to six days a week from 6am until 6pm. She said that she came to work in Ireland a few years ago after answering an advertisement on social media. 

In general, she said that working conditions are difficult as workers can be standing for up to 12 hours, working mainly six days per week. This, she said, impacts on any opportunities for a social life as workers are very tired at the end of their shift.

Another issue raised by several experts is that, while most harvesters are working long hours, some are working far less hours and struggle to make ends meet as a result. 

Justina*, another Monaghan Mushrooms worker from the Baltic region, said that her working hours can see-saw from close to 50 hours in one week to less than 30 hours the next, as does her income, she said.

She said that she cannot afford to bring her family to restaurants in Ireland as the pay is “not enough [to do] like Irish people would do”. 

A Teagasc report based on an industry labour survey in 2018 released via FOI - that included replies from mushroom companies – found that just under 40% of workers in horticulture earned the minimum wage, with a total of 83% earning €12 or less per hour. 

According to the report, the horticulture sector has reported difficulties in recruiting staff due in part to “low wage rates [and] poor working conditions”.

In a statement, Monaghan Mushrooms said its first priority is the welfare of “all our 3000+ employees across all facilities”. To protect their privacy and confidentiality, it said that it is not possible to comment on “individual unsupported assertions not raised through our extensive available reporting systems”. 

It said that while “isolated issues can arise”, they are “certainly not indicative of company policies and procedures”. It said that it strictly adheres to the Working Time Directive, with working hours monitored through a fully automated time and attendance system. 

“Like most businesses, the working week principle is five days on, two days off, with metrics and procedures in place to ensure compliance,” the company said.

It said that it is regularly audited by Bord Bia, its major customers, and international auditing systems such as Sedex and Global Gap.

In terms of worker pay, Monaghan Mushrooms said that “employee compensation packages include competitive salaries, together with health plans”. 

“In addition, we have an industry leading training programme to help all our harvesters maximise earning potential through productivity bonuses,” it said. 

We also asked the Commercial Mushrooms Producers (CMP) on several occasions for a response to the general issues raised by mushroom harvesters who spoke to the CBBB project team about their working hours. 

It did not reply to the specific questions posed. It said that its members “operate to the highest standards” and are “independently audited by Bord Bia and Sedex”. 

Pay in the sector

According to Teagasc, pickers are often paid based on a piece rate and those who do not make the piece rate are topped up by the grower to ensure they earn at least the minimum wage.

Many growers surveyed by Teagasc, including mushroom farms, however, stated that they were unable to raise wage rates higher and that they already felt unable to compete in the tightening labour market due to low margins paid for their produce. 

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) has also pointed out that the monthly minimum wage in Ireland is much higher than countries such as Poland, our biggest competitor in the UK mushroom market. 

In a sector where labour accounts for a large percentage of total input costs, it said that this represents a significant disadvantage to Irish producers.

According to Ulster University’s Bloomer, the wages on offer mean that working beyond 48 hours is a “regularity” at some mushroom farms as workers try to earn higher wages by picking more mushrooms.  

This is seen in specific cases from the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) that is responsible for monitoring compliance in relation to the likes of working time, pay rates, record keeping, written terms and conditions of work, and employment permits.

A report released under FOI from a WRC inspection in 2019 at an unnamed mushroom farm in Co Cavan states that some employees were “permitted to work more than an average of 48 hours in each period of seven days” in contravention of the Organisation of Working Time Act. The contravention was rectified, the report states.

In October 2019, the Labour Court also ruled in favour of a Romanian worker who claimed that she worked 81 hours per week at a mushroom farm in Co Tipperary. 

The court said that it was satisfied, on the basis of evidence presented, that a working week of at least 80 hours was the regular reality for the complainant and she was compensated accordingly. 

Fourteen other WRC and Labour Court decisions since 2015 in relation to mushroom farms have been decided fully or partially in favour of workers, according to records in the WRC’s online database, over concerns with pay, redundancy payment and working hours. Four cases were decided in favour of the employer during this period. 

In general, from an analysis of 77 cases linked to horticultural companies in the WRC’s database from 1988 to present, around 30 cases were decided in favour of the employer. 

In many cases, workers had claimed that they were unfairly dismissed. Other concerns raised related to claims of discrimination, disputes over payments, rates of pay, break times and unpaid wages. 

Health and safety concerns

While some mushroom workers that the CBBB project team spoke with do earn “decent wages”, Bloomer said that many of them are “busted” physically from working long hours. 

Neck and back pain, as well as skin, allergies and respiratory issues, are common issues raised by workers, according to research produced by Ulster University last year and outlined by several researchers who spoke to the investigation team. 

There are also cases of workplace injuries. In one recent 2019 case before the WRC for a claim of unfair dismissal, a worker at an unnamed mushroom farm claimed they suffered a serious injury in May 2015 after falling from a trolley while harvesting mushrooms. 

It was submitted, the decision reads, that “the claimant was put under severe pressure to return to work despite the opinion of her GP that she was unfit to do so”. The claimant organised an MRI scan in her home country of Lithuania but was dismissed prior to receiving the results, a decision that the WRC said was “unreasonable”.

While not suffering any major injuries herself, Justina* told us that she has seen workers falling off picking trollies at Monaghan Mushrooms. 

Camilla*, a former Monaghan Mushrooms worker from the Baltic region who recently left the company, told us that she also saw trollies collapsing at the company. She said that some workers left because they considered the work to be dangerous.

While not commenting on “individual unsupported assertions”, Monaghan Mushrooms said that it has a comprehensive safety management system in place with all incidents “taken seriously with rapid responses” and stressed that its “core value and philosophy is we do the right thing”.

“Root causes are investigated and where appropriate, new control measures are implemented to prevent reoccurrence,” the company said, adding that it operates a highly visible health and safety training programme at induction, with regular refresher training sessions and monthly review meetings at all facilities.

Medical tests in home countries

Researchers on the CBBB project told us that it is also common for workers to seek medical attention when they go to their home country on annual leave. 

Polina Malcheva, a Bulgarian liaison officer at the Community Intercultural Programme in Northern Ireland, said that workplace injuries are “very typical of the Bulgarian community”, including back pain and wrist pain. 

She said that in “99% of cases” workers will go back home to get treatment. “Medical care is expensive [in Ireland] and, on top of everything, you have to translate all your documents.”

Justina* told us that she always goes to her GP in her home country for checkups when on leave. When she came down with a “really bad flu” in Ireland a few years ago, she said that it was very difficult to find a local GP who would take her as a new patient. 

Monaghan Mushrooms said that an occupational health doctor visits its premises every month and that the company operates employee assistance programmes and employee wellbeing events. 

We asked the CMP on several occasions if it could provide a response to the general issues raised by the CBBB project and mushroom harvesters in relation to workplace injuries and member protocols in this area.

It did not reply to the specific questions, but stressed its members “operate to the highest standards”, are “independently audited by Bord Bia and Sedex”, and “are compliant with the Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit”.

Fear of speaking out 

A key reason why workers tend not to speak out, according to experts who spoke to the investigation team, is the fear of repercussions from supervisors who are often from the same countries as the dominant nationalities among the workforce, or at least speak a common language such as Russian. 

“People don’t want to rock the boat,” according to MCRI’s McGinley, as for many, the money that they send back home is “a lifeline for their families”.

Quote from Edel McGlinley, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland... If you want to put food in the mouths of your children and family, fear of losing your job means that often people think they have to put up with poor conditions of employment.

When asked if any issues have been raised by members in relation to issues between supervisors and workers, CMP did not provide a specific response. CMP said that its members “operate to the highest standards” and are independently audited by Bord Bia and Sedex.

Justina* told us that she believes that there is a general sense of fear of speaking out and being disciplined by supervisors for it. “Three disciplinary letters and then they can fire you. We cannot afford this, we have to work,” she said. 

Due to concern about someone finding out that she spoke to us, Justina* only agreed to an online interview without video and through a trusted translator.

Anne* also said that one of the biggest problems in the workplace is the “attitude from supervisors to workers” and concern about being disciplined for voicing your opinion.

Camilla* and Anton*, former Monaghan Mushrooms workers from Eastern Europe, said that they also experienced difficult relationships with supervisors before recently leaving to work elsewhere.

Camilla*, who worked there for several years, told us that “people are considered like robots”, while Anton*, who has worked in the mushroom industry on both sides of the border for the best part of a decade, said that it was a “nightmare” experience for him. 

He claimed that some supervisors would have workers called into the office if they did not pick a set amount of mushrooms during the week. He said that he didn’t have motivation in the morning because of the workload that he faced in the day ahead.  

While not in a position to comment on “individual unsupported allegations not raised through our extensive available reporting systems”,  Monaghan Mushrooms said that “as a responsible company with our employee welfare at the heart of our business, we take seriously all concerns raised to us”. 

The company said that it has a dignity at work policy and detailed grievance resolution procedures in place and that “all employees receive these policies in their own language”, with all concerns raised “handled sensitively, swiftly and effectively”.

It said that the company is in “continual dialogue” with workers who are “actively encouraged to raise any concerns” through a variety of forms, including directly to managers, through employee liaison officers, regular work council meetings attended by employee representatives, as well as an anonymous reporting system.  

“As a responsible business, we strictly adhere to all required employee regulations and best practices. We operate with total transparency and have rigorous, effective control systems in place to ensure we ‘go beyond’ in our focus on employee welfare and working conditions,” it said. 

Dzintra2 Dzintra Kamkovska McConnon worked closely with migrant workers on the Crossing Borders project

Lack of English

Several of the workers that we spoke with also outlined their concerns that any issues they raise do not filter past supervisors, and that, due to their low levels of English, they cannot follow up directly with senior management. 

English doesn’t tend to be a workplace language, with supervisors often able to speak the same language as workers or Russian – a common language for many workers from the Baltic states, as well as from Bulgaria and Romania. 

While many mushroom farms do offer English lessons, Dzintra Kamkovska McConnon, a development worker on the Crossing Borders project, said workers have told her that classes are generally in the evening. 

Kamkovska McConnon, who worked briefly in the mushroom sector when she moved to Ireland from Latvia 16 years ago, said that she knows from experience that after a long working day, “the last thing you will be thinking about are English lessons”.

The investigation team asked the CMP on several occasions if it could provide an overview as to how many CMP members currently offer English lessons to workers, and the times at which lessons are offered, but it did not reply to these specific questions.

Wider horticulture sector

Recent inspections undertaken by the WRC, based on reports released to the investigation team, also appear to point to concerns in the wider horticulture sector. 

According to data from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the WRC carried out over 370 inspections in the horticulture sector between 2015 and September 2020. The average overall breach rate is 48% and relates primarily to inadequate record keeping, working time, annual leave and unpaid wages issues. 

An analysis of data released by the WRC shows that it has uncovered just over €184,000 in unpaid wages affecting over 3,300 employees in the soft fruit and mushroom sectors between January 2017 and July 2020. It did not state which companies or farms the employees worked for.  

In 22 inspection cases during this period, companies or farms were found to be compliant on inspection, and in a further 39 cases, compliance was achieved after inspection. It brought two prosecutions of unnamed companies during this period. 

In this period, the WRC also said that it received a total of 11 complaints from staff, several relating to pay, one for not getting a payslip and one for working in excess of 48 hours in a week. The WRC did not state the companies the employees worked for.  

In December 2019, for example, WRC’s Dublin team followed up on a complaint that a supervisor shouted at employees at a facility with over 250, mainly Bulgarian, employees. Over 30 staff were interviewed and no contravention of legislation was detected.

The Health & Safety Authority (HSA) has responsibility for inspecting occupational health and safety in the workplace in line with the Work Safely Protocol. Data released under FOI shows that it has received 34 complaints about the horticultural sector since 2015, carrying out 102 inspections and 14 investigations. 

The agency did not release the names of companies investigated or those that received a prohibition notice (nine cases), verbal advice (56 cases) or written advice (57 cases). 

Audit data from Bord Bia’s Sustainable Horticulture Assurance Scheme from January 2019 to August 2020 also shows that there were 15 cases of major non-compliance and 23 cases of minor non-compliance due to the absence of employee welfare policies.

To qualify for the scheme, producers must meet specific staff welfare criteria and have an employee welfare policy. Compliance is determined by a farm audit every 18 months, in addition to unscheduled or spot audits recommended by the auditor or reviewer.

Only one unnamed field crop farm did not pass the audit in 2019 and did not receive certification due to several non-compliances across a range of criteria “including labour/employee welfare issues” which they failed to rectify, Bord Bia said.

Labour court cases

In addition, 77 cases linked to horticultural companies went through WRC adjudication or to the Labour Court from 1988 to present. In many cases, workers claimed that they were unfairly dismissed. Other concerns raised related to claims of discrimination, disputes over payments, rates of pay, break times and unpaid wages. 

While around 30 cases were decided fully or partially in favour of the worker, a further 30-odd cases clearly went in favour of the employer in soft fruit or mushrooms, including in cases of claims of unfair dismissal and unpaid wages.

In the remaining cases, the decisions were mixed or it was determined that negotiations or facilitation should be engaged.

According to employment law solicitor Richard Grogan, whose firm has taken on cases for horticultural workers, there are issues right across the industry, particularly in relation to working times and hours of work.  

Once you see an organisation that [employs] predominantly non-Irish, particularly if they’re lower paid jobs of a manual nature, that rings alarm bells for an employment lawyer.

He said that two of the reasons why he believes that more cases are not brought is workers’ lack of proficiency in English and a lack of understanding of their actual legal entitlements.  

As worker demographics shifts from Baltic and Polish workers towards Bulgarian and Romanians workers, he said that it will take time for new groups to learn their rights and bring cases forward. 

There is also a lack of legal aid and support for workers, he said. “They don’t have access to legal advice and they don’t have access to unions. That’s a real problem.”

Union access

While there are specific agreements in place with some companies in mushrooms, soft fruits and the wider horticulture sector, a general lack of union representation for migrant workers was raised by the CBBB project team and union representatives.

The production, sorting and packing of crops, including fruit and vegetables, is included in the Agricultural Joint Labour Committee (JLC) to regulate rates of pay and conditions of employment. There are concerns that it is not functioning, however. 

In its submission for a review of JLCs in early 2018, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) stated that the lack of an operational Agricultural JLC was “contributing to the continued exploitation of workers, particularly in the horticulture industry”.

ICTU pointed to a “failure” of employers to engage in the JLC, stating that the only correspondence received at the time was from the Commercial Mushrooms Producers (CMP) to object to a JLC or an Employment Regulation Order that sets minimum pay rates and conditions for workers. CMP did not respond to requests to outline its position. 

According to SIPTU’s Mick Brown, the union has also found it difficult to contact workers who are “afraid to talk to anybody that’s going to put their income in jeopardy”. 

“They’re scared to talk to you, never-mind trying to unionise,” he said, pointing to the extremes that the union goes in trying to make workers feel comfortable. 

We’d have scenarios where we would be meeting people in a place of their choice so that there’s no way that their employer would know that they’re talking to us.

Rhona McCord of Unite the Union told the investigation team that she has previously met with horticultural workers in the back room of a pub well away from their accommodation due to their fears of supervisors finding out about the meeting.

“They’re there for economic reasons, they absolutely need to survive and they’re afraid of losing those jobs. It is very, very difficult to break into,” she said. “If you lose a job, it can be devastating so people take more pressure.”

RhonaMcCord5 Rhona McCord, Unite the Union Source: Niall Sargent

Reaching out to workers

McCord said that the union has tried to reach out to Keelings workers but with limited success, including earlier this summer after the high-profile arrival of Bulgarian workers at the height of the first wave of Covid-19.

Alexander Homits, a workers’ rights activist who speaks Russian, accompanied Unite representatives and Bulgarian activists to speak to workers at accommodation in Dublin and Louth this summer where, he told us, they met a hostile reception. 

Supervisors stood at the doors of the accommodation and as workers were coming in, they would specifically instruct them to not engage with us… All we had was a leaflet with a basic outline of your rights.

In a statement, the company’s CEO, Caroline Keeling said that it “respects the constitutional right of all employees to join a trade union of their choice”, while staff can take advantage of the services of a Bulgarian seasonal worker liaison officer, a Bulgarian HR manager and a confidential 24/7 whistleblowing hotline. 

She added that during the period in question, Covid-19 regulations prohibited “visitors to any accommodation and all seasonal workers would have been very aware of this”.

The investigation team also spoke to two former Keelings workers who outlined some concerns with agent fees, working hours and on-farm facilities when they worked with the company in 2018 and between 2017 and 2019 respectively. 

‘Everybody does it for the money’

Elena*, a seasonal worker for Keelings between 2017 and 2019, learned about the opportunity to work in Ireland from a former colleague in the construction industry who told her that she could make good money here.

“Everybody does it for the money,” she said. “I was told about the conditions, I knew it was cold, that I had to wake up early.” 

While generally happy with her overall experience, she did raise concern with facilities for workers to rest and take breaks in some of the fields where she was working. 

The former worker claimed that there would often be high numbers of workers using two caravans for break periods that she claimed could be overcrowded.  

Caroline Keeling confirmed that Keelings use modular cabins “located close to where our staff are currently working for staff breaks and toilet facilities”.

The company, she said, has increased the number of cabins in response to Covid-19, as well as installing hand sanitiser stations and introducing staggered breaks and other social distancing measures.

Working six days per week

Elena* also said that the work day including travel would sometimes go on for 13 or 14 hours, with some workers not getting home until late in the evening. “They would go back, eat and go to bed. Nightmare,” Elena* noted.

Homits also said that Unite the Union and the worker rights’ activists did engage with around a dozen workers in informal conversation this summer. He said that many told them that they worked six days a week with only one day off.

While that’s perfectly legal, I wouldn’t consider it reasonable to have people do manual labour six days a week.

Caroline Keeling said that seasonal workers can work a six-day week with above average weekly hours in order to secure the picking of particular crops during peak harvesting seasons. 

Workers are “fully informed about the nature of working hours” before coming to Ireland, where they are protected by national and EU legislation, she said, adding that the company has not received any complaints from workers with regards to start times.

Milko2 Milko Pagurov, former Keelings worker Source: Niall Sargent

Supervisor concerns 

While happy with his pay while working with Keelings in 2018, Milko Pagurov was not happy that he was let go, along with his girlfriend, two months into their three-month contracts. 

Pagurov said that they tried to get information for the reasons for the dismissal and their rights in the case from their supervisors but that they were not supportive. 

“Instead of helping you, they would stand in your way. And I did not want anything more from them than to do their job,” he claimed. 

Elena*, who worked at Keelings for periods between 2017 and 2019, also claimed that she witnessed the early dismissal of workers. “To withdraw a person who has not been able to earn money that they have invested is really bad,” she said. 

According to the Polish recruitment agency used by Keelings that has a branch in Bulgaria, this situation is very rare and that in these instances workers were offered alternative horticultural work for the same pay with another employer in the UK. 

Pagurov confirmed that both he and his girlfriend were offered work at another farm in Scotland but that they refused as they would have to invest more money to move and did not know what conditions would be like there. 

Caroline Keeling said that “there is a standard eight-week probationary period to protect the rights of both the employer and the employee” and that 95% of all seasonal workers completed their contracts in the three-year period of 2017 –2019. 

Fee seemed ‘questionable’ to me

Both former Keelings workers also told us that they paid fees varying from 250 leva (€125) to 530 leva (around €250) to the agent that hired them in Bulgaria for translation and other administrative documentation.

The Bulgarian General Labor Inspectorate said in May that fees or costs should be covered by the employer in the receiving country.  

Pagurov said that he was generally satisfied with the service provided by the agency but that he was concerned that he had to pay an agency fee for translation.

Overall, they were honest with us for the working conditions. We only paid one fee that seemed questionable.

Both workers said that they paid fees to the Bulgarian branch of the Polish recruitment agency used by Keelings that said in a statement that workers can be charged an “optional fee for ongoing translation services”.

This, it said, can cover the likes of tax return forms, medical questionnaires, and assistance with travel insurance and any insurance claims, as well as organising transport and travel tickets. 

In a statement, Caroline Keeling said that the direct employment of seasonal workers is facilitated using “reputable recruitment agencies” who advertise, interview and manage the recruitment process and administration requirements. 

Before departure from Bulgaria, she added, recruited seasonal workers have the option to avail of certain services which do attract administration fees related to document translation services as well as transportation services for flights from Bulgaria to Dublin.

Quote from Caroline Keeling, CEO of Keelings... At all times, seasonal workers are informed in detail about the services, the purpose of these services, their associated fees and the fact that they are free to organise and pay for these services directly themselves.

Where does the State stand? 

Concerns were raised by various experts who spoke to us that State agencies are not taking enough interest in working conditions in the commercial horticulture sector where it has invested substantial amounts of public money. 

Recent investment has been achieved in large part through the State’s commercial horticulture grant aid scheme, with €9m set to be paid out by the Department of Agriculture (DAFM) next year. 

When asked if certain labour condition criteria must be met in order to qualify for support, the Department said that payment of grant aid is “subject to compliance with statutory requirements in relation to the pay and working conditions of employees”.

In addition, the mushroom industry has availed of EU funding under the Producer Organisation (PO) scheme to encourage producers to jointly market their production as recommended under the FoodWise 2025 agri-food strategy.

The Department of Agriculture is responsible for the scheme and FoodWise 2025 is chaired by the Minister for Agriculture.

Aside from staff shortage and costs, labour conditions were not discussed at the High Level Implementation Committee for FoodWise 2025, including at meetings where horticulture was specifically discussed in 2016 and 2018.

The Department confirmed that labour rights and practices “have not been discussed” by the committee but that the next planned agri-food strategy is “considering a wide range of issues, including the attraction and retention of people across the agri-food sector”.

In part three of this investigation, out this evening, we delve further into the position of several departments and agencies on an industry push for non-EU worker visas. 

Quote from Mick Brown, SIPTU... Implement standards for the people that are doing the work to give them a decent standard of living - full stop - because the standards apply to everything including the people that are doing the work.

Despite some of their experiences described above, the workers that we spoke with have a desire to stay in Ireland for the foreseeable future. Anne*, for example, is starting to learn English from Irish friends.

She dreams of one day having her own property in her “dreamland” country. “I love Ireland, I always liked Ireland from even school years…  I call Ireland my country.”

Justina* told us that she has applied for citizenship and would love to live by herself one day instead of sharing with other workers. She plans to retire in Ireland. 

Both Anton* and Camilla* have since moved to another mushroom farm where they are happy with working hours and pay, and see themselves staying in Ireland for a long time. 

Milko Pagurov did not give up on his idea to live and work in Ireland, and just one month after both he and his girlfriend were let go from Keelings, they were back in the country after finding new jobs here. Elena* currently lives and works in Bulgaria, but would like to move to Ireland with her two children. 

The experts we spoke to, however, all have concerns with the direction that the horticultural sector is heading.

They want to see more policy action and enforcement to improve conditions for existing workers prior to expansion of the industry as outlined in the State’s agricultural policies. 

SIPTU’s Mick Brown is concerned that policy will “turn a blind eye” to labour issues and maintain focus on producing food “to the absolute highest standard achievable”.

“That is absolutely brilliant, now implement standards for the people that are doing the work to give them a decent standard of living – full stop – because the standards apply to everything, including the people that are doing the work.”  

*Names have been changed

***

In the second part of this series, also out now, we delve more deeply into the domestic impact of seasonal migration to Ireland in Bulgaria and Romania. 

In part three, out this evening, we look at an industry push for non-EU worker visas that has raised concern with unions, migrant rights groups and some Government departments. 

Reporting from Niall Sargent of Noteworthy and Maria Cheresheva of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, a network of non-governmental organisations promoting freedom of speech, human rights and democratic values in Southern and Eastern Europe.

Noteworthy is the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. We have a number of farming-related proposals which you can view here. 

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute (IPI), the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.

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Niall Sargent and Maria Cheresheva

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