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UK Government Complicit in Exploitation of Farm Workers – Bureau of Investigative Journalism

The British government failed to investigate allegations of widespread exploitation and unjust recruitment practices documented in government labor inspection reports, and subsequently attempted to prevent that information from being made public, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reported last week.

TBIJ reviewed 19 Home Office (government) farm inspection reports between 2021 and 2022 secured through freedom of information requests. The reports revealed that of the 845 workers interviewed and employed under a seasonal worker visa, nearly half (44%) claimed mistreatment, discrimination, wage theft, and threats of being sent back home. 

The findings of the farm inspection reports counter claims by farming minister Mark Spencer, who said that people working under the seasonal visa scheme are “very well looked after” and that employers “make sure that their welfare needs are met,” wrote TBIJFurther, two visa scheme operators reportedly told the House of Lords that only 1% of their workers had made complaints. 

But none of the allegations raised during these inspections was investigated by the Home Office or visa scheme operators, according to a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, TBIJ reported.

The government needs workers, they recruit them so they need to protect them. It is not rocket science.

Nicholas McGeehan, founding co-director of FairSquare, a nonprofit that investigates migrant rights abuses, described the inaction of the UK government as “appalling but not surprising”.

“On the one hand, you have a government yelling at small boats crossing and criminalizing refugees. On the other hand, they do not protect the migrants who come to the country to work,” McGeehan told InfoMigrants.

“The government needs workers, they recruit them so they need to protect them. It is not rocket science,” said McGeehan.

Migrant labor: the backbone of the agricultural industry 

The results of the government inspection reports were consistent with interviews with farm workers that TBIJ conducted as part of its investigation. 

Julia Quecaño Casimiro, 23, from Bolivia told TBIJ that she has worked on farms in Chile for many years but never experienced bullying, discrimination, or wage deductions until she worked in the UK. 

A recruiter had told Casimiro that she would earn up to £500 a week picking fruit under a seasonal worker visa contract. Casimiro reported that she was not given any shifts during her first week and the next week, she made less than £150. 

On many farms, workers reported not having showers or toilets in their caravans. In others, there were mice, cockroaches, or bed bugs.

Visa scheme operators are required to ensure workers are properly paid, treated fairly, and live in suitable hygienic accommodations. However, despite the numerous complaints raised by workers to labor inspectors, no government-licensed scheme operator has lost its license or been sanctioned for failing to meet these standards. Some have, however, been penalized when workers stayed in the UK beyond the end of their visas, reported TBIJ.

Casimiro was among the estimated 90 migrant farm workers who held an unofficial walkout in protest over being asked to pay for their flights to the UK and £250 every week for six weeks on top of accommodation deductions. The deductions would leave Casimiro only £16 on the weeks when she was given the hours guaranteed by the farm.

It was among the first recorded strikes by people on the UK government’s seasonal worker scheme. 

Seasonal workers to plug massive labor shortages

The UK agricultural sector contributes around £130 billion (€149 billion) to the UK’s economy and employs about 467,000 people, according to a 2021 government study. 

The labor that keeps the farm belts of agriculture spinning is supplied by an estimated 70,000 migrant workers each year, according to a study by the University of Sheffield. About 99% of seasonal workers came from outside the UK. 

Established in 2019 to plug labor shortages in the agricultural sector which were anticipated to worsen due to Brexit, the seasonal expanded rapidly. There were 2,500 seasonal worker visas available in 2019 and up to 55,000 this year. Additionally, the Home Office increased the visa fee by £50 to £298 – more than twice what it costs to process it.

Farms across the UK are feeling the labor shortage brought on by the compounded impact of Brexit and the war in Ukraine. Brexit had already curtailed the seasonal migrant recruitment path from less affluent eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania. The Russian invasion of Ukraine made matters worse, severing the labor chain with the UK. From 2019 and 2021 Ukrainians reportedly made up the overwhelming majority of those granted seasonal work visas (19,920). 

With traditional – and nearer – sources of seasonal laborers now blocked, UK farms have had to recruit seasonal workers from countries such as Latin America, Indonesia, and Nepal.

Under the T5 Temporary Seasonal Worker scheme, people can come and work for up to six months. No knowledge of English is required but visa holders cannot change their sponsor once they arrive in the UK, claim welfare benefits, or sponsor other family members to join them.

As TBIJ reported, farm inspection reports also revealed that some workers had paid as much as £7,500 (€8,600) in recruitment fees to work in the UK. The charging of recruitment fees is illegal in the UK.

“The UK is dealing with immigration in a completely incompetent, negligent, and, frankly, immoral fashion. They’ve created labor shortages in the agricultural sector but have put in place a flimsy scheme that has not been well-thought out,” said FairSquare’s McGeehan.

Paying for the right to work

Speaking to InfoMigrants in London, Mariko Hayashi, executive director at the Southeast and East Asian Centre (SEEAC), a migrant support organization, said that the UK seasonal worker visa has created problems for migrant workers even in their countries of origin.

You have workers who can no longer come back and are buried in debt.

“In Indonesia, recruiters have misled workers by saying that they could ‘renew’ the seasonal worker visa and ‘return’ to work for the next season,” said Hayashi.

This is meant to justify the massive recruitment fees. However, the seasonal worker visa is non-renewable.

“Now, you have workers who can no longer come back and are buried in debt. When you have to travel that far to work for only six months, it’s very hard to make back the money you spent,” Hayashi said.

Source: Info Migrants