Labour agencies to face supermarket scrutiny over exploitation claims
UK farmers have relied on seasonal workers from Asia to fill the labour gap left by Brexit and the Ukraine war. UK supermarkets including Aldi, Tesco and Sainsbury’s are funding tighter audits in response to allegations of worker exploitation across their supply chains.
The grocers are ramping up scrutiny of the hiring agencies many suppliers have used as part of the government’s Seasonal Worker Scheme, over fears thousands of Asian labourers have been exploited by recruiters.
The move follows several reports that workers coming from countries such as Nepal and Indonesia to work on British fruit & veg farms have paid extortionate fees to temporary work agencies in their home countries, and have struggled to pay off their debts since arriving in the UK.
The most recent high-profile case was that of hiring agency AG Recruitment, one of the government’s key recruitment partners, which lost its license last month over alleged human rights violations.
The coalition of supermarkets – also known as the Seasonal Workers Scheme Taskforce – has now told suppliers it will fund independent audits to mitigate the risks of worker exploitation in their supply chains.
This will include stricter reviews of recruitment practices in source countries as well as regular farm visits to check on workers’ ongoing experiences.
“The BRC and its members have been working collaboratively since autumn 2022, joining representatives from government, scheme operators, growers and NGOs, to develop and implement tangible actions that mitigate risk of worker exploitation and improve the experience for seasonal workers,” said Sophie De Salis, sustainability policy advisor at the BRC.
“Retailers are committed to upholding high standards of welfare for all people who work in their supply chains.’’
UK farmers have turned to an increasing number of migrant workers from Asian countries to help tackle labour shortages driven by Brexit and worsened by the Ukraine conflict, as many fruit & veg pickers previously came from the war-torn country.
Growers will typically audit their recruitment partners. But concerns around the hiring practices of seasonal labourers from Nepal and Indonesia have escalated so much in recent months that supermarkets and other food companies have faced calls to intervene, and make sure workers in their supply chains are not at risk of debt bondage and other forms of forced labour.
In a letter sent to suppliers earlier this month seen by The Grocer, the retailers announced the launch of a common scheme operator Responsible Recruitment Progress Assessment (RRPA) to “support seasonal workers and growers further by creating an aligned, transparent, and robust due diligence process”.
This two-part auditing programme will include a self-assessment form for hiring companies as well as an independent assessment run by ethical audit agency Stronger Together – including reviews of recruitment agencies’ practices in the source countries and visits to UK farms once the workers are placed.
The first audits are expected to take place in April and early May, with more to follow throughout the year to allow hiring agencies to track progress in implementing responsible recruitment good practice steps.
These new self-assessment forms and independent audits will now be accepted in lieu of other previous checks taking place for the Seasonal Workers Scheme – this will help reduce pre-audit and audit duplication, and increase transparency across all supermarkets’ supply chains.
Grocers told their suppliers they expected them to “only use scheme operators that have been through the Stronger Together RRPA process”.
The Taskforce will also engage with government departments and enforcement agencies on potential changes to scheme rules, regulation, oversight and enforcement.
Kate Roberts, head of policy at charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), said: ”Making sure workers who migrate to the UK are able to access rights in practice is central to mitigating risks of exploitation on short-term work visa schemes.
”This needs to include proactive labour market enforcement and monitoring and practical ways for workers to access redress.”
The full list of supermarket members of the taskforce is: Aldi, Asda, Coop, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose. Others involved in the Taskforce include Stronger Together, the Association of Labour Providers and the Food Network for Ethical Trade.
BACKGROUND READING AND MATERIALS
See below article by the Financial Times published last week (11th March) also, concerning the work of a newly formed UK Seasonal Workers Scheme Taskforce entitled ‘UK supermarkets to fund audits on farms to prevent worker exploitation.’
The Taskforce’s work is funded by UK supermarkets. It has been recently set up to respond to continued forced labour risks in the UK’s seasonal worker’s scheme. The Taskforce has already published several useful resources, including audit materials referred to in the below FT article, all of which are available here and below.
This is all positive progress of sorts, which is very much welcome. However, the urgent need to remediate indebted victims of unethical and unlawful recruitment into the scheme in 2021 and 2022, particularly those from Indonesia and Nepal, remains unaddressed.
See below additional links as background.
Move comes after warnings that the recruitment process was exposing Asian migrants to exploitation
Original source: https://www.ft.com/content/4d5de1d2-1c0d-4c70-a3ca-3f9298bd77a9
The controversy surrounding migrant farm workers has added to pressure on UK businesses and the government as they face a shortage of foreign workers © Bloomberg
Oliver Telling and Arjun Neil Alim in London
The UK’s leading supermarkets have formed a task force that will fund independent audits on British farms after investors called on food retailers to eliminate the risk of worker exploitation in their supply chains.
The move from grocers including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Ocado and Waitrose, follows widespread reports that Asian agricultural workers had come to the UK after paying exorbitant fees to hiring agencies in their home countries, leaving them effectively working to pay off debts.
The grocers told suppliers last week that they will fund audits of the UK-based recruitment companies licensed to hire seasonal labourers, which will involve surveys of workers on farms, according to a letter seen by the Financial Times.
Stronger Together, the ethical recruitment group leading the audit process, confirmed that the aim is to assess the recruitment process by UK agencies and their counterparts abroad, rather than conditions on the farms themselves.
The supermarkets, which also include Aldi, Co-op, Asda and Morrisons, said in their letter that “the task force is working to develop and implement tangible actions to help mitigate risks of worker exploitation” and “to improve worker welfare”.
The controversy surrounding migrant farm workers has added to pressure on UK businesses and the government as they face a shortage of foreign workers. Growers, which in the past relied on temporary workers from Europe, have been forced to look farther east post-Brexit and since Ukraine was invaded by Russia.
Campaigners have warned that labourers from Nepal and Indonesia, who made up 18 per cent of seasonal workers in 2022 up to August, would struggle to pay back loans that they took out after being charged thousands of pounds by recruiters in their home countries.
As a result, British recruiters for the seasonal worker scheme have now ruled out hiring from these Asian countries, deepening the risk of labour shortages this year.
In December, investors with £800bn in assets, including shareholders in big supermarkets, called on retailers to eliminate the risk of exploitation and ensure workers are repaid the millions that they are estimated to have collectively spent to secure jobs.
This followed a report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration that found the government “did not act promptly or seriously” when workers reported “serious concerns”.
Debt bondage is recognised by the International Labour Organization as an indicator of forced labour, and the charging of recruitment fees is opposed by UN principles backed by the UK.
The efforts by the supermarkets “cannot and shouldn’t replace the government’s role”, said Andy Hall, an independent activist who has campaigned on issues around the seasonal worker scheme.
“The fact [that the private sector is arranging audits] is a good thing in response to the government’s lack of action.” He added, however, that his focus was “the remediation [of former workers]”.
Sophie De Salis, sustainability policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, which represents the supermarkets, said that retailers are “committed to upholding high standards of welfare for all people who work in their supply chains”.
But she said that supermarkets needed an intervention from the government and licensed recruiters to address the “systemic challenges within the design, operation and enforcement of the seasonal worker scheme” and to “better protect workers vulnerable to illicit recruitment fees”.
A government spokesperson said that the welfare of workers “is always of paramount importance for us”. They added that the government works closely with the licensed recruiters “who have responsibility for ensuring the welfare of migrant workers, preventing zero hour contracts and managing the recruitment process overseas”.
They said the government “will always take decisive action” if these recruiters do not meet its conditions.
More Related Background News and Articles
1. Working in the UK: Thousands of Indonesian citizens have lost hope of leaving in 2023 (BBC Indonesia, 7th Mar 2023)
2. Farm workers on UK seasonal visas to be guaranteed 32 hours a week(Guardian, 24th Feb 2023)
3. Nepal squanders overseas seasonal work opportunities (Kathmandu Post, 5th March 2023)
4. AG Recruitment, UK recruiter of debt-hit Indonesian and Nepali migrant workers, loses seasonal workers scheme license following forced labour related allegations, worker abscondments and asylum claims (Guardian, 10th Feb 2023)
5. UK farmers stop recruiting Nepalese workers after exploitation warning (Financial Times, 28th January 2023)
7. Immigration: Investors warn food companies about risk of forced labour on UK farms (Financial Times 19th Dec 2022)
8. Investor statement on the UK Seasonal Worker Scheme (Public Investor Statement 19th Dec 2022)
9. Hundreds of Indonesian fruit pickers in UK seek diplomatic help (Guardian, 2nd Dec 2022)