Migrant fruit pickers charged thousands in illegal fees to work on UK farms, investigation shows
Rights and freedom: Migrant fruit pickers charged thousands in illegal fees to work on UK farms, investigation shows. Evidence appears to show illicit payments taken from workers harvesting produce for M&S, Tesco and Waitrose.
Ditya*, a single mother from Nepal, is used to travelling abroad for work. For years she has made a living as a migrant farm worker, where she can earn several times what she would in her home country. Last year she applied to become part of the UK government’s seasonal worker visa scheme, picking fruit and vegetables on a farm in Herefordshire that supplies fresh produce to Marks & Spencer (M&S), Tesco and Waitrose.
Ditya got the job, but it came at a huge cost. In order to secure it, she says she had to pay more than £3,000 – almost a third of what she earned during the six-month post – to recruitment agents.
Some of that money covered the cost of her flight and visa application. The rest appears to include illegal fees that labour rights experts describe as “exploitative and extortionate”.
A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Guardian can reveal that as many as 150 Nepali workers who came to work at Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire as part of the government scheme may have paid similar amounts, many of them claiming they paid agents working for a UK-licensed recruitment company.
The findings suggest that the underfunding of labour-rights enforcement, combined with the rapid expansion of the seasonal worker scheme – which aims to plug shortages created by Brexit and Covid-19 – could be putting thousands of migrant labourers at risk of exploitation.
Tesco and M&S, which buy from Cobrey, have human rights policies requiring their suppliers to ensure workers are not charged fees.
Tesco and M&S said they are urgently investigating the matter. Tesco added that any illegal fees had to be repaid in full. The workers, however, say they have not yet been reimbursed.
A Waitrose spokesperson said it couldn’t comment on the specific case, which was a live investigation, but it would “take whatever action” was needed.
The UK government launched the seasonal workers pilot scheme in 2019 to address concerns that the withdrawal from the EU would cause a shortage of labour for harvesting jobs on farms. Its rules state that workers should only pay a visa application fee of £259 (£244 until April this year) and travel costs. Any additional recruitment fees are illegal under UK law and can result in a labour provider being stripped of its licence.
Workers speaking on condition of anonymity said that they paid the fees to agents working for the Nepali company My Careers HR Solutions, which Poseidon Human Capital, a recruitment firm headquartered in London, says it controls day-to-day. Poseidon had in turn been hired by the Brighton-based charity Concordia, one of four organisations that operate the UK government scheme. Concordia had been contracted to find workers to pick fruit and vegetables at Cobrey Farms.
Simon Bowyer, CEO of Concordia, said that his company conducted an investigation and interviewed more than half of the 150 people recruited to work at the farm by Poseidon. He said a “significant percentage” told them they had paid fees to My Careers HR Solutions, its chairman John Khadka, Poseidon or “other named associates”, and that most payments were between RS300,000 (£1,935) and RS750,000 (£4,840).
Poseidon director Matthew Hurley said the company hired its own investigators, from a “reputable law firm”, who found that no officers from his company had been complicit in illegal fees being taken.
The costs for a Nepali worker to participate in the scheme, including charges for preparing documents, visa costs and logistics, are estimated to be more than £2,000, Hurley said. If farms covered these costs, potential “exposure to payment of illicit fees would be eradicated”, he said.
Khadka, who was the chairman of Kathmandu-based My Careers HR Solutions at the time of the alleged breaches, said the investigation found two deposits made by workers to his accounts. He said that both were from longtime friends who he was helping to transfer money.