Addressing risks of exploitation is key to addressing UK labour shortage in agriculture
For Immediate Release: Addressing risks of exploitation is key to addressing the labour shortage in agriculture in the UK – Joint statement by civil society responding to the DEFRA commissioned review of labour shortages in the food supply chain.
Statement is available at: Labour Exploitation.
The Defra commissioned review into labour shortages in the food supply chain was published at the end of June. Commissioned in August 2022, the review panel is comprised of industry leaders and a former university vice Chancellor.
Workers, or ‘the labour’ who are the subject of the review are absent from the panel. The methodology section does not make clear whether workers were consulted or given the opportunity to input. The report is also noticeably light on recommendations to address the labour shortage in agriculture by improving working conditions, with improving pay and conditions and regulation and enforcement being reduced to one bullet point within a broader recommendation to ‘Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Enhance Sector Attractiveness’. This response primarily concerns the ‘Seasonal Worker visa’ included within recommendation 2 of the review; ‘Access to Migrant Labour’. Currently workers who enter the UK via the horticultural Seasonal Worker route enter on a 6 month visa. This cannot be extended and the visa period may have commenced before workers travel to the UK to begin work. Workers are ‘sponsored’ by one of seven ‘Scheme Operators’ who place them with employers. They are restricted to work in the horticultural industry in employment arranged by the Scheme Operator who sponsored their visa to the UK.
Workers on the Seasonal Worker visa generally pay all the costs of their visa and travel to the UK.1 This can amount to many thousands of pounds which they typically have to borrow, meaning that workers arrive with the urgent need to earn, to pay off debt. Impactt have estimated that for 2022 alone £35 million was paid in fees by migrant seasonal workers in the UK. Despite the April 2023 announcement of 32 paid hours of work a week, the duration of work over the full length of the six-month visa is not guaranteed. This makes it difficult for workers to calculate their likely earnings in the UK when making the decision to migrate. The combination of high migration costs and insecurity of work or income creates a risk of debt bondage. It also exacerbates the already significant power discrepancy between the worker and their employer and visa sponsor. Workers cannot risk challenging working conditions in case this results in them losing work.