Financial Times (UK) 19th Dec 2022 – Immigration: Investors warn food companies about risk of forced labour on UK farms (includes links to previous Guardian investigative stories)

Find copied below link to an important article today by The Financial Times on investor’s response to the forced labour risks in the UK government’s failing seasonal worker scheme, with the focus on Nepali and Indonesian workers migrating at extortionate cost to the UK agricultural sector. I also include previous stories on this issue below at the bottom of this post for additional reference.

Immigration: Investors warn food companies about risk of forced labour on UK farms

There is growing concern that the country’s immigration system is exposing migrant workers to abuse

A fruit picker places raspberries in baskets on a fruit and vegetable farm near Maidstone, UK © Bloomberg

Oliver Telling, Judith Evans and Oliver Barnes in London 33 MINUTES AGO

Investors with £800bn in assets have called on food retailers and the UK government to eliminate risks of debt bondage and forced labour on UK farms, as concerns build that the country’s immigration system is exposing migrant workers to abuse.

Asset managers including Schroders, Sarasin & Partners and Quilter Cheviot have warned that the UK supply chain has become increasingly reliant on labourers from outside the EU since Brexit and the Ukraine war, many of whom are working to pay off debts after being charged excessive recruitment fees by agencies in their home country. Campaigners have also reported unsafe housing, employers threatening workers with deportation, and labourers finding they are effectively unable to leave jobs.

They are writing to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and other businesses to ask they work with suppliers and ensure these seasonal workers, many of whom come from Asia, are repaid the millions that they are estimated to have collectively spent to secure jobs. There is no suggestion that the companies themselves, which include supermarkets and hospitality groups in which the investors hold shares, are knowingly employing forced labour.

The warnings are adding to the debate over how the UK should address a deepening farm labour shortage. Tens of millions of pounds’ worth of fresh produce was left to rot in the fields over the summer.

On Friday, the government said it will increase the number of visas for seasonal workers by 50 per cent to 45,000 in 2023, after businesses called on ministers to help ease the shortage. But campaigners say the poor design and policing of the seasonal worker scheme, launched in 2019, is exposing labourers to mistreatment.

“You think about the World Cup and all the concerns [over labour abuses] in Qatar,” said Dame Sarah Thornton, the UK’s former anti-slavery commissioner and a consultant to CCLA, the UK’s largest charity fund manager that is spearheading the campaign for businesses to take action. “What we have got here is a risk of forced labour in the UK. We have to make sure our own house is in order if we are going to be criticising other countries.”

Others to back the campaign include the central finance board of the Methodist Church and the Pension Protection Fund. Asset managers including M&G, Abrdn, Aviva, Lazard, Hermes and Columbia Threadneedle were approached by the CCLA but did not sign on. They each declined to comment.

CCLA chief executive Peter Hugh Smith said the investor group hoped to push companies to discuss the issue “in the boardroom”. The group, which is writing directly to supermarkets and hospitality companies such as Compass and Whitbread, is also calling on the government to bring the seasonal worker scheme in line with its international commitments on labour rights.

More than 3,500 of the 26,600 visas issued in the first half of the year went to labourers from Indonesia and Nepal, countries where campaigners say recruitment agencies routinely charge extortionate fees to workers, up from about 500 visas in 2021.

In total, human rights consultancy Impactt estimates that overseas workers paid at least £35mn to travel and secure temporary jobs in the UK in 2022, with Thornton adding that some have faced debts of up to £5,000. Debt bondage is recognised by the International Labour Organization as an indicator of forced labour, and the charging of recruitment fees is opposed by United Nations principles backed by the UK.

Lucila Granada, chief executive of non-profit group Focus on Labour Exploitation, said workers have been promised six-month placements but they sometimes arrive too late in the season to secure much work, leaving them struggling to afford accommodation and food.

Andy Hall, a labour rights campaigner, warned some were being pushed into seeking illegal employment. The effect of the seasonal worker scheme is “completely against” the government’s ambition to clamp down on illegal immigration, he added.

The Home Office said the department was working to “prevent exploitation and clamp down on poor working conditions”, adding it will “take action” if an offence is reported and proven. It said that private operators licensed by the government to bring seasonal workers into the UK were responsible for “ensuring the welfare of migrant workers, preventing zero hour contracts and managing the recruitment process overseas”.

The British Retail Consortium, which represents retailers in the country, said businesses “are committed to upholding high standards of welfare”. The organisation said it had driven the creation of several “working groups” with the goal of protecting seasonal workers.

Compass, the world’s biggest catering hospitality group, said it was committed to eradicating labour exploitation, adding that it investigates and suspends any supplier considered in breach of its policies. Whitbread declined to comment.

Recent stories on challenges of UK seasonal worker scheme in The Guardian (UK)

1.    Hundreds of Indonesian fruit pickers in UK seek diplomatic help  (2nd Dec 2022)

2.    Seasonal worker visa puts migrants at risk of exploitation, say supermarkets (2nd Dec 2022)

3. ‘I’m ashamed’: working in UK leaves fruit pickers from Indonesia in debt (2nd Dec 2022)

4.    Seasonal fruit pickers from Nepal left thousands in debt after being sent home early from UK farms (13th Nov 2022) 

5.     Review of UK seasonal worker visas to increase risk of slavery, experts warn (29th Sept 2022)

6.    Indonesians wait on UK farm jobs after paying deposits of up to £2,500 (25th Sept 2022)

7.    ‘Our fate is unclear’: Indonesian man who paid £1,000 deposit for UK farm job (25th Sept 2022)

8.    Rapid expansion of visa scheme leaves seasonal workers at risk of exploitation (25th Sept 2022)

9.    Indonesia to investigate claims fruit pickers in UK seasonal agricultural workers scheme charged thousands to work in Kent (29th August 2022)

10. Revealed: Indonesian workers on UK farm ‘at risk of debt bondage’ (14th August 2022)

11. ‘My family need my support to eat’: how Indonesians came to work on a Kent farm (14th August 2022)

12. Why UK farms are recruiting fruit pickers from 7,000 miles away (14th August 2022)

13. Why UK Migrant Fruit Pickers from Nepal Charged Thousands in Fees to Work on UK Farms, Exclusive BIJ/Guardian Investigation Shows (27th May 2022)

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