The UK Home Office response to the ICIBI critical report on the UK governments seasonal worker scheme failings was recently issued and is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/response-to-an-inspection-of-the-immigration-system-in-the-agricultural-sector/a-response-to-an-inspection-of-the-immigration-system-as-it-relates-to-the-agricultural-sector
The Home Office has accepted all 3 recommendations of this report on Compliance, Communication and Clarity of Government Responsibilities. The report has a strong critique of the UK government’s seasonal worker scheme failings, its ineffective functioning, lack of accountability and limited worker welfare protection mechanisms.
See below article summarising the important findings of the report, the report itself and also below additional materials/links related to this issue.
The Home Office accepts recommendations made in the Chief Inspector’s report on the immigration system as it relates to the agricultural sector
The agriculture sector relies on the immigration system to provide the labour it requires throughout the year, and particularly during the picking season.
In their recent report, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (‘ICIBI’) recognised that “bringing foreign labour into the industry plays a pivotal role in the UK’s production of food and directly contributes to the country’s food security”. In December 2020, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimated that UK-born workers made up only 1% of workers in the sector and that recruitment of resident workers was a significant challenge for the sector.
In 2019 the government launched the Seasonal Workers Pilot which has now been extended until 2024. In 2023, 45,000 visas will be available in horticulture, for the picking and harvesting of fruit, vegetables, and flowers. Some agricultural roles also fall under the Skilled Worker visa route. Between summer 2019 and 2022, just under 2400 people entered the sector with Skilled Worker visas.
The ICIBI has undertaken a full inspection of the operation of the immigration system as it relates to the agriculture sector and has found significant room for improvement in three key areas: compliance, communication and clarity of roles and responsibilities. The Inspector acknowledged that workers in the sector are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and poor working conditions and as such the government has a heightened responsibility to implement robust protective mechanisms and to support operators who promote good working practices.
On compliance, the ICIBI found that the Home Office needed to raise its game to ensure that scheme operators were operating in accordance with guidance and in a manner which would adequately protect workers. The ICIBI recommended that the Home Office should publish the findings of its own overdue review of the Seasonal Worker route which should focus on identifying training needs for compliance officers, creating clear operating mandates, creating robust actions for operators where guidance is not followed and by ensuring that compliance visits are driven by intelligence.
The Home Office accepted this recommendation and confirmed the review would be completed by April 2023. They also confirmed that they would form a dedicated team to monitor and implement changes to the operational elements of the compliance regime including delivering new guidance, training, developing specialist staff and making better use of intelligence.
During interviews with stakeholders the ICIBI found that communication between the Home Office and stakeholders was less than adequate. Several contributors described communication as being “one-way” with the Home Office delivering information but being unwilling to listen, engage, or effectively collaborate with stakeholders. The Chief Inspector recommended that the Home Office publish a communications and engagement roadmap tailored specifically for the agriculture sector. The Home Office confirmed they would comply with this recommendation and would produce a roadmap by April 2023.
The last key finding of the inspection was that there was a lack of clarity on roles and responsibility within Government in relation to the Seasonal Worker route. The ICIBI recommended that the Home Office produce a reference document to clarify where responsibilities and duties for the Seasonal Worker route fall within government, devolved administrations, and local authorities. The Home Office also accepted this final recommendation, agreeing to prepare the recommended document by July 2023.
The inspection report also highlights what many businesses in the agriculture sector have identified as a key issue for the sector. When announcing the Seasonal Workers Pilot, the government insisted that the scheme would only be temporary and that the sector would have to decrease its reliance on labour from overseas by recruiting from the resident labour market and by automating. Many operators submit that there simply is not an available resident labour force who is willing to undertake work in the sector, either because of work conditions, the often-remote geographical location of work and/or the seasonality of work, and that the government underestimates the efforts which organisations have gone to to recruit locally.
They also argue that automation which would replace sufficient numbers of workers to reduce reliance on a migrant workforce is out of many operators grasp and much further in the future than the government appreciates. The report found that the “general consensus among famers and sector representative organisations was that the mass-adaption of automation was “decades away””. The ‘Automation in horticulture review’ recently stated that a “long-term seasonal workers scheme would help to stabilise workforce pressures in the sector, helping growers to better evaluate their labour needs over time and incentivising long-term capital investments in automation technology”.
As such, while welcoming the changes the Home Office has conceded to make, operators also want to see an increase in the numbers of available visas issued annually, an increase in the length of each visa from six months to at least a year and an assurance that the scheme will be in place beyond 2024. Without these assurances, operators are struggling to plan in the long term and reluctant to invest when the future is uncertain.
Find copied below link to an article published in December 2023 by The Financial Times (UK) on investor’s response (see also attached and below the original investor statement) to the serious forced labour risks in the UK government’s failing seasonal worker scheme, with the focus on Nepali and Indonesian workers migrating at extortionate cost into the UK agricultural sector. I also include previous stories on this issue below for additional reference.
Financial Times (UK) 19th December: Immigration: Investors warn food companies about risk of forced labour on UK farms (full version available at https://andyjhall.wordpress.com/2022/12/19/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/)
There is growing concern that the country’s immigration system is exposing migrant workers to abuse
Oliver Telling, Judith Evans and Oliver Barnes in London
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.
19th December 2022: Investor statement on the UK Seasonal Worker Scheme
https://www.ccla.co.uk/documents/investor-statement-seasonal-worker-scheme/download?inline (attached PDF version)
We are 10 long-term institutional investors with £806bn assets under management and advisory with investments across UK listed, hospitality and food production.
Many of the undersigned investors are members of the ‘Find it, Fix it, Prevent it’ and the ‘Votes Against Slavery’ collaborative investor initiatives working to tackle and address Modern Slavery.
Brexit and the war in Ukraine have resulted in a shortage of low-skilled migrant workers for the UK agricultural sector. We are concerned that migrant workers in the UK, recruited and employed through the government’s Seasonal Worker Scheme (SWS), are being obliged to pay excessive fees to agents and middlemen in addition to other fees, travel and visa costs for crucial, but temporary roles, supporting the UK’s food sector. This results in a high risk of debt bondage, one of the key indicators of forced labour.
Workers often have to take out loans at high interest rates or sign over assets and property to pay these fees and costs. In addition, some workers have been deceived by promises of multi-year contracts but due to late release of 8,000 visas find themselves with only weeks of work and in substantial debt. This means that there is a debt bondage and high risk of forced labour across the agricultural sector in the United Kingdom.
These issues could have been foreseen. In early 2022, the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton, now advising CCLA, wrote1 to the UK government expressing concern regarding the Seasonal Worker Scheme and reflecting on the much-delayed Seasonal Worker Scheme pilot review, launched on 24 December 2021. She pointed to evidence that a rapidly expanding scheme carried with it increasing risks for workers recruited from further afield and at greater risk of exploitation, particularly in the form of recruitment fees, debt bondage, opaque recruitment and accountability challenges concerning scheme operators and intermediaries.
As investors and their representatives, we are concerned about the ability of our investments to comply with increasing Business and Human Rights and Modern Slavery regulation around the world as well as the growing expectations that businesses adopt responsible purchasing practices and enable Access to Remedy. Moreover, we have concerns about business models that rely on or benefit from modern slavery and/or precarious working conditions. These models are ultimately unsustainable, and risk destroying value in the long term.
We note that the Employer Pays Principle2, which commits employers to paying the full costs of recruitment, is increasingly being adopted by companies across a range of industry sectors and locations around the globe, including some of the UK supermarkets.
We are calling on retailers and firms in and directly sourcing from the UK agricultural supply chain to:
• Undertake an independent investigation on the scale of recruitment fees and related costs that have been made by workers recruited through the Seasonal Worker Scheme.
• Implement the Employer Pays Principle and ensure ethical or responsible recruitment in their own businesses and supply chains.
• Work with suppliers and all businesses in the UK agricultural supply chain to agree and implement a fair process to repay Seasonal Worker Scheme workers’ recruitment fees and related costs.
• Encourage the government to bring the Seasonal Worker Scheme in line with international commitments such as Principles for Tackling Modern Slavery in Supply Chains3 and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration4 so as to reduce risks of exploitation and forced labour.
We understand that the backdrop to these challenges is rising inflation and the cost of living, and that retailers and food producers are focused on limiting rising food prices, which mean all stakeholders are reluctant to pay for the required changes. However, without a well-designed and robust process for the recruitment and employment of seasonal workers the UK food system will continue to be unstable and fragile with a greater likelihood of failure.
CCLA Investment Management
Canada Life Asset Management
Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church
Epworth Investment Management Ltd
Evelyn Partners Pension Protection Fund
Sarasin & Partners Schroders
WANT TO KNOW MORE? Please contact: Martin Buttle
Better Work Lead firstname.lastname@example.org 020 7489 6141
1 See https://www.antislaverycommissioner.co.uk/news-insights/iasc-raises-concerns-overlabour-exploitation-risk-for-migrant-agricultural-workers
2 See for example: https://www.ihrb.org/employerpays/the-employer-pays-principle
Recent stories on challenges of UK seasonal worker scheme
1. Hundreds of Indonesian fruit pickers in UK seek diplomatic help (2nd Dec 2022)
3. ‘I’m ashamed’: working in UK leaves fruit pickers from Indonesia in debt (2nd Dec 2022)
See also Press release 16th Dec 2022 UK Government provides boost to horticulture industry with certainty over seasonal workers https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-provides-boost-to-horticulture-industry-with-certainty-over-seasonal-workers
45,000 visas for seasonal workers to be available for horticulture businesses next year
Alongside expanding the number of visas available, *the government will be appointing new scheme operators* to help with the efficient operation of the visa route and *help safeguard worker welfare.* *A new team will also focus on ensuring sponsors are abiding by workers’ rights* by improving training and processes for compliance inspectors and creating clear policies and *guidance for robust action for scheme operators where workers are at risk of exploitation.*
Sat, 1 Jan 2022
Seasonal workers pilot review 2019 released (buried?!?) on Christmas Eve, showing prevalent/systemic migrant worker abuse but apparently no ‘modern slavery’
Find below the UK Seasonal workers pilot scheme review 2019 that was released (buried news wise) on Christmas Eve at
Despite us now being in 2022, this was the review of 2019 when there were only 2500 workers in the scheme. The number has since increased to 30,000 in 2021. Taken 2 years to release these limited figures and this review, and then on Christmas Eve of all days.
Figures reported for abuse are disappointingly high and response rate of 26% very low. No instances of modern slavery were uncovered at all, but then again, most workers were not even covered/visited in the research.
Of the 2500 workers, only 26% responded to the survey, which is low. 22% of that total who report being treated unfairly is unacceptably high. 22% of workers report facing abuse is a serious issue. Also substandard housing, workers not getting contracts in a language they understand. Workers not being told at the pre-departure stage prior to migrating the actual conditions of work and accommodation.