28th Jan 2023: UK farmers stop recruiting Nepalese workers after exploitation warning

UK employment – UK farmers stop recruiting Nepalese workers after exploitation warning

Halt to hiring from south Asian nation will exacerbate labour shortages © Neil Hall/Reuters

Oliver Telling and Judith Evans in London 

British farms have stopped recruiting workers from Nepal following warnings that the UK’s immigration system was exposing the south Asian migrants to exploitation. 

All five of the recruitment companies licensed to bring farm labourers to the UK on temporary visas have publicly announced or told the Financial Times that they are not hiring workers from the country this year.

Not all the UK-based agencies had recruited from Nepal but the abrupt halt to recruitment from the nation, where almost a 10th of seasonal workers came from in 2022, risks exacerbating the acute labour shortage on British farms. 

Last summer, tens of millions of pounds’ worth of fresh produce was left to rot because there were not enough workers to harvest the crops. 

In 2022, the number of Nepalese workers arriving through the UK’s seasonal worker scheme more than quadrupled to 2,472 after Brexit and the Ukraine war left farms more dependent on workers from outside Europe. 

But the surge in Nepalese arrivals sparked warnings from campaigners, who said workers from Asia were routinely charged excessive recruitment fees by job-finding agencies in their home country. They added that many migrants had struggled to pay off their debts and afford accommodation and food.

Last month, investors with £800bn in assets called on big food retailers to work with suppliers to ensure seasonal workers were repaid the millions that they were estimated to have collectively spent to secure jobs in Britain (see article at https://atomic-temporary-50183612.wpcomstaging.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/ and original link at https://www.ft.com/content/8c7ce83d-b0e8-47ef-b4aa-51e369eecd58). They also called on the UK government to bring the seasonal worker scheme into line with its commitments on labour rights.

The rapid expansion of the scheme, launched in 2019, had raised concerns about the difficulty of maintaining oversight in countries where UK regulations were not enforced. 

A report last month by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that the Home Office “did not act promptly or seriously” when workers in the UK reported “serious concerns”.  

Despite the move by the recruitment companies, Nepali workers remain eager to travel, lured by the hope of higher wages. One Facebook group called “UK Seasonal Work — Nepal” has more than 41,000 members. 

Andy Hall, a labour rights campaigner in Asia, warned there were still “so many fake” social media posts encouraging Nepali workers to seek job opportunities in the UK. 

Lucila Granada, chief executive of the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, said that it was important that recruiters did not simply move from one country to the next “until there is a new scandal”.

She added, “We need proper mapping of the supply chains and a careful process to work with the relevant authorities in each country the UK aims to bring workers from before operations start.”

Retailers, recruiters and growers have been holding talks on combating worker exploitation, according to activists. After concerns were raised about debt-burdened workers arriving in the UK only to find little work, recruiters want the government to set out visa allocations earlier each year to enable more time for planning. 

The Home Office said it “takes workers’ concerns very seriously”, adding that improvements had been made each year “to stop exploitation and clamp down on poor working conditions”. It said it encouraged people to report abuses and would take action when an offence was proven, but any compensation would be a matter for the worker and their recruiter to resolve.

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