30th March 2023: UK retailers urged to compensate Nepalese and Indonesian ex-farm workers 

UK employment: UK retailers urged to compensate Nepalese and Indonesian ex-farm workers 

UK retailers urged to compensate Nepalese and Indonesian ex-farm workers 

Original Source: Financial Times – Oliver Telling in London and Jyotsna Singh in Delhi – 30th March 2023 

UK retailers and supermarkets have been urged to compensate Nepalese and Indonesian labourers formerly employed on UK farms, after they claimed they were struggling to pay off debts because they can no longer work in Britain. 

Labourers told the Financial Times of their troubles after the UK government revoked the licence of a key agriculture recruitment company and other British groups ruled out hiring from Nepal and Indonesia. 

The moves by ministers and recruiters followed warnings that brokers in Asia had exploited seasonal workers from both countries, charging them exorbitant fees and leaving them working in effect to clear debts. 

Debt bondage is recognised by the International Labour Organization as an indicator of forced labour, and charging recruitment fees is against UN principles backed by the UK. 

But the sudden end to hiring from Nepal and Indonesia has crushed workers’ hopes that they could return to the UK and recoup some of their losses, and added to fears about labour shortages in the agricultural sector. 

A seasonal migrant worker bends over to harvest lettuce on a farm in Kent, UK
The end to hiring from Nepal and Indonesia has crushed workers’ hopes of returning to the UK and added to fears about agricultural labour shortages © Neil Hall/Reuters 

Investors and activists who had already called for supermarkets to compensate workers in their supply chain have repeated their demands for action. 

Comments by Andy Hall – UK Retailers Should Compensate the Workers

Andy Hall, an independent labour rights campaigner in Asia, said it was “terrible” that retailers had not already compensated workers. 

“Not only are [UK businesses] not remediating them, they are not helping them to come back,” he said, noting that low farm profits meant “only the supermarkets” could provide full compensation. 

Martin Buttle, better work lead at CCLA, the UK’s largest fund manager, said the group was calling on supermarkets to recompense workers and for ministers to “address failures” in the seasonal worker scheme. 

Dame Sara Thornton, former anti-slavery commissioner and now a consultant to CCLA, added: “[Recruiters have decided] to stop the risk to themselves [by avoiding Nepal and Indonesia]. We want the harm to be put right.” 

About 15 per cent of the UK’s seasonal labourers came from Nepal and Indonesia between January and August 2022, according to Home Office data, after post-Brexit visa bureaucracy and the Ukraine war forced employers to look beyond Europe. 

Bar chart of Number of seasonal workers by nationality showing Arrivals from outside Europe have surged during the Ukraine war

Ramesh Bahadur Thapa, a father of two, said a man from his village in Nepal had helped him secure a UK seasonal worker visa for £3,750, which he paid by selling his truck. 

Thapa said he had hoped to obtain six months’ work but was asked to return home after just two months and earning £1,781 after expenses, leaving him unable to pay back the money he originally borrowed to buy his truck. 

“My family keeps asking me when I am going [back to the UK],” he said. “I don’t know what to say. I have to do something as I am in debt. I just don’t know where to start.” 

An Indonesian father of three, who asked not to be named, said he had taken out a £2,700 bank loan that helped cover the costs of moving to the UK last year, which included £3,510 paid to a local agency. 

He had also expected to work for six months but said he returned home with £4,590 after working for three. He said he had been left to repay his bank loan in monthly instalments of roughly £120, but that his chicken farm in Indonesia had failed, meaning he may be forced to sell land. 

Four workers said they had been brought to the UK by Kent-based AG Recruitment, one of a handful of British companies appointed by the government to recruit seasonal workers from abroad. 

All hoped to return to the UK before AG’s licence was suddenly dropped by the government this year. The five remaining recruiters for the UK agriculture sector have said they are no longer hiring from Nepal or Indonesia, with one explicitly citing concerns about worker exploitation. 

The Need to Reduce the Risk of Worker Exploitation

Sophie De Salis, sustainability policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, said its members had been working with the government, recruiters and farms to reduce the risk of worker exploitation. She pointed to the recent formation of a task force that plans to fund audits of UK recruiters and their overseas counterparts. 

The UK government said workers’ welfare was “of paramount importance”, that it was “clamping down on poor working conditions and exploitation”, and would “always take decisive action where we believe abusive practices are taking place”. 

It added that it worked “closely” with licensed recruiters, who had “responsibility for ensuring the welfare of migrant workers . . . and managing the recruitment process overseas”. 

AG did not respond to a request for comment. AG has reportedly denied knowing that workers had been charged by brokers in Asia. 

Related Background News and Articles

See more: 14th July 2023 – Migrant farm workers from Indonesia/Nepal claim asylum in the UK, trapped by recruitment debt bondage.

See more: March 15th 2023: ‘If we leave, Nepal will suffer’: embattled hospitals fear impact of UK job offers.

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