What Potatoes Taught Me About Fighting Modern Slavery

On a chilly morning in January, The Clewer Initiative team set out on an unusual expedition: we went to visit a potato farm!

We were the guests of Manor Fresh Ltd, a large firm who source, pack, and supply potatoes and vegetables for the UK market. We had been invited by Shayne Tyler, their Operations Executive, to learn more about how they prevent exploitation in their supply chain. Here are four things we learnt about modern slavery (and potatoes).

A frosty start to the day in rural Lincolnshire

A frosty start to the day in rural Lincolnshire

1. Potatoes grow in the middle of nowhere

Businesses like Manor Fresh Ltd, who work in the food production industry, are often based in extremely rural areas. Their facilities are surrounded by fields, and are far away from the nearest town. Shayne spoke about the challenges of this context, which leaves workers very isolated. However, he sees an opportunity for the church. The facilities he visits in his role are usually 25 miles away from the nearest city, 3 miles from the nearest town, but rarely more than 1 mile away from the nearest church.

Given this, what a beacon the local church could be, in a place where other organisations are too far away to be reached easily. And yet with this knowledge also comes a challenge for the church. Many of the UK’s population now live in towns and cities, and some of our rural churches have struggled as a result. How do we keep those communities alive, for the benefit and protection of the most vulnerable?

2. Broken potatoes? Make mash

Most of Manor Fresh’s top quality potatoes go to Marks & Spencer’s. But what happens to the ones that aren’t quite right for the premium retailer? Don’t worry they aren’t wasted. Instead, they are used for all sorts of other things, like the mash on top of a Shepherd’s Pie ready meal.

Shayne has spoken many times about how his experiences of finding exploitation in businesses he has previously worked in. More than anything, the knowledge that he could have done something differently and perhaps ended someone’s suffering earlier is what drives him to make a difference now.

Many people have had similar experiences to Shayne, in all sorts of industries, and instead of using what they have learnt to avoid future exploitation, have shied away from the challenge. Perhaps through fear, or apathy, or simply not knowing what to do. To Shayne’s credit he has applied all the knowledge he has acquired from previous brushes with modern slavery to his present environment.

This is key if we, as a society, are going to solve this challenge. We cannot simply do things the way we have always done them and hope that people will stop exploiting each other. Expecting perfection in people – as in potatoes – is a foolish way to plan. Instead we must root out flaws in the system that allow for exploitation, and make our supply chains more resilient.

The group kitted out for a tour around the factory

The group kitted out for a tour around the factory

3. There’s more than one way to peel a potato

The world is constantly changing, and modern slavery is no exception. Shayne said he often hears people say that traffickers don’t care about their victims, but in his experience nothing is further from the truth. Exploiters spend every minute of the day thinking about how they can extract more profit from their victims. They will change their tactics constantly, so those who seek to thwart them must do so as well.

The labour market is also changing rapidly. With increased automation jobs are being replaced, a more unpredictable climate is affecting crop yields, and Britain leaving the European Union has meant a decrease in workers. What will the future hold for the most vulnerable? We’re not sure yet, but employers and the church need to be keeping an eye on the horizon to see what’s coming.

4. Want a good baked potato? Buy one with a rough skin

This one is just about potatoes! For the best jacket potato you will ever eat, make sure to buy a potato with a few blemishes and rough patches on the skin. They crisp up brilliantly in the oven, we know, we’ve tested it!

Learn more about modern slavery in rural areas with our Rural Toolkit or take a look at all our Resources.