12th January 2024: UK government ‘breaching international law’ with seasonal worker scheme, says UN envoy

UK government ‘breaching international law’ with seasonal worker scheme, says UN envoy

12th January 2024: TBIJ – UK government ‘breaching international law’ with seasonal worker scheme, says UN envoy

The Home Office has been found to be failing to investigate ‘clear indicators of forced labour’ associated with its seasonal worker scheme – Andy Hall – International Migrant Workers Rights Specialist

Original source: The Bureau Investigative Journal (TBIJ) by Emiliano Mellino – 12th January 2024

The UK government could be in breach of international law over failing to investigate “clear indicators of forced labour” in its seasonal worker scheme, an independent UN human rights expert has said. 

Tomoya Obokata, the UN’s special rapporteur on modern slavery, said he was “very concerned” by reports of intimidation, threats, sexual harassment and poor living conditions for people working on UK farms.‘Even one victim is a very serious issue for me’

The reports from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), NGOs, government officials and parliamentary inquiries into the exploitation of seasonal workers also showed other indicators of forced labour, such as long hours, underpayment and a lack of access to sick leave, Obokata said.

“I wouldn’t say that this happens [on] almost every single farm … but I think that’s not the point,” he said. “Even one victim is a very serious issue for me. So, I think these instances of investigations and findings raise serious alarm.”

Seasonal Worker Scheme offers overseas six-month temporary visa

The seasonal worker scheme, which offers people from overseas a six-month temporary visa, was introduced in 2019 to address labour shortages that were expected to be worsened by Brexit. It has expanded rapidly, from 2,500 visas in 2019 to 55,000 this year.

The programme has been plagued by allegations of worker mistreatment. In March 2023, TBIJ uncovered systematic bullying and abuse on several UK farms. Those findings have been supported by evidence from NGOs and government inspectors, as well as a recent parliamentary inquiry.

In October, a TBIJ investigation found that the Home Office had failed to investigate hundreds of allegations made by seasonal workers of threats, wage theft and racism. The government said that improvements were being made to the scheme each year to stop exploitation. But it took two months to interview workers at one farm after allegations of exploitation were made as recently as last summer.

The Home Office also told TBIJ that a new team had been established to safeguard the rights of workers on the scheme. TBIJ understands that the team has half a dozen staff, while there are hundreds of farms in the UK employing seasonal workers.

“If the UK government is not properly conducting labour inspections, identifying abuse and holding perpetrators to account that is a clear breach of an international human rights obligation. There’s no doubt about that,” Obokata said.

In 2023, Obokata studied a similar visa scheme for farm workers in Canada, which he said constituted “a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery”. But he said the Canadian scheme seemed to be “better regulated” than its British counterpart, in part because the Canadian government has written agreements with the countries from which it is recruiting.‘The government should be closely monitoring and inspecting workplaces’

UK seasonal worker scheme puts power in private sector recruiter hands

By contrast, the UK scheme puts “enormous powers” in the hands of private sector recruiters, called scheme operators, who are paid by farms and decide where workers are sent. That system creates a relationship of dependence, he said, and could mean that workers might be less willing to speak out when experiencing abuse. 

In 2023, UK government-licensed scheme operators recruited workers from more than 60 countries.

“[The UK] is dependent on the licensed operators [for enforcement], which is problematic,” Obokata said. “It is the government who should be closely monitoring and inspecting workplaces.”

6th Nov 2023: UK government complicit in exploitation of farm workers in its seasonal worker scheme – Bureau of Investigative Journalism

By Andy Hall / 06/11/2023 / 10 minutes of reading

12th January 2024: TBIJ - UK government ‘breaching international law’ with seasonal worker scheme, says UN envoy

Government labor inspection reports revealed the exploitation of farm workers, and nearly half of the 845 seasonal workers interviewed claimed mistreatment, discrimination, wage theft, and threats of being sent back home.

Original Source: Info Migrants by Ana P. Santos – Bureau of Investigative Journalism

The British government failed to investigate allegations of widespread exploitation and unjust recruitment practices documented in government labor inspection reports and subsequently attempted to prevent that information from being made public, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reported last week (October 22). 

TBIJ reviewed 19 Home Office (government) farm inspection reports between 2021 and 2022 secured through freedom of information requests. The reports revealed that of the 845 workers interviewed and employed under a seasonal worker visa, nearly half (44%) claimed mistreatment, discrimination, wage theft, and threats of being sent back home, among other issues.

The findings of the farm inspection reports counter claims by farming minister Mark Spencer, who said that people working under the seasonal visa scheme are “very well looked after” and that employers “make sure that their welfare needs are met,” wrote TBIJFurther, two visa scheme operators reportedly told the House of Lords that only 1% of their workers had made complaints. 

But none of the allegations raised during these inspections was investigated by the Home Office or visa scheme operators, according to a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, TBIJ reported.

Nicholas McGeehan, founding co-director of FairSquare, a nonprofit that investigates migrant rights abuses, described the inaction of the UK government as “appalling but not surprising”.

“On the one hand, you have a government yelling at small boats crossing and criminalizing refugees. On the other hand, they do not protect the migrants who come to the country to work,” McGeehan told InfoMigrants.

“The government needs workers, they recruit them so they need to protect them. It is not rocket science,” said McGeehan.

Migrant labor: the backbone of the agricultural industry 

The results of the government inspection reports were consistent with interviews with farm workers that TBIJ conducted as part of its investigation. 

Julia Quecaño Casimiro, 23, from Bolivia, told TBIJ that she has worked on farms in Chile for many years but never experienced bullying, discrimination, or wage deductions until she worked in the UK. 

A recruiter had told Casimiro that she would earn up to £500 a week picking fruit under a seasonal worker visa contract. Casimiro reported that she was not given any shifts during her first week, and the next week, she made less than £150. 

On many farms, workers reported not having showers or toilets in their caravans. In others, there were mice, cockroaches, or bed bugs.

Visa scheme operators are required to ensure workers are properly paid, treated fairly, and live in suitable hygienic accommodations. However, despite the numerous complaints raised by workers to labor inspectors, no government-licensed scheme operator has lost its license or been sanctioned for failing to meet these standards. Some have, however, been penalized when workers stayed in the UK beyond the end of their visas, reported TBIJ.

Casimiro was among the estimated 90 migrant farm workers who held an unofficial walkout in protest over being asked to pay for their flights to the UK and £250 every week for six weeks on top of accommodation deductions. The deductions would leave Casimiro only £16 on the weeks when she was given the hours guaranteed by the farm.

It was among the first recorded strikes by people on the UK government’s seasonal worker scheme. 

Seasonal worker scheme to plug massive labor shortages

The UK agricultural sector contributes around £130 billion (€149 billion) to the UK’s economy and employs about 467,000 people, according to a 2021 government study. 

The labor that keeps the farm belts of agriculture spinning is supplied by an estimated 70,000 migrant workers each year, according to a study by the University of Sheffield. About 99% of seasonal workers came from outside the UK. 

12th January 2024: TBIJ - UK government ‘breaching international law’ with seasonal worker scheme, says UN envoy

Caption: An estimated 70,000 migrant workers, mostly working as seasonal workers, form the backbone of the UK agricultural economy | Photo: picture alliance.

Established in 2019 to plug labor shortages in the agricultural sector which were anticipated to worsen due to Brexit, the seasonal expanded rapidly. There were 2,500 seasonal worker visas available in 2019 and up to 55,000 this year. Additionally, the Home Office increased the visa fee by £50 to £298 – more than twice what it costs to process it.

Farms across the UK are feeling the labor shortage brought on by the compounded impact of Brexit and the war in Ukraine. Brexit had already curtailed the seasonal migrant recruitment path from less affluent eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania. The Russian invasion of Ukraine made matters worse, severing the labor chain with the UK. From 2019 and 2021 Ukrainians reportedly made up the overwhelming majority of those granted seasonal work visas (19,920). 

With traditional – and nearer – sources of seasonal laborers now blocked, UK farms have had to recruit seasonal workers from countries such as Latin America, Indonesia, and Nepal.

Under the T5 Temporary Seasonal Worker scheme, people can come and work for up to six months. No knowledge of English is required but visa holders cannot change their sponsor once they arrive in the UK, claim welfare benefits, or sponsor other family members to join them.

As TBIJ reported, farm inspection reports also revealed that some workers had paid as much as £7,500 (€8,600) in recruitment fees to work in the UK. The charging of recruitment fees is illegal in the UK.

“The UK is dealing with immigration in a completely incompetent, negligent, and, frankly, immoral fashion. They’ve created labor shortages in the agricultural sector but have put in place a flimsy scheme that has not been well-thought out,” said FairSquare’s McGeehan.

Paying for the right to work – Exploitation of Farm Workers

Speaking to InfoMigrants in London, Mariko Hayashi, executive director at the Southeast and East Asian Centre (SEEAC), a migrant support organization, said that the UK seasonal worker visa has created problems for migrant workers even in their countries of origin.

“In Indonesia, recruiters have misled workers by saying that they could ‘renew’ the seasonal worker visa and ‘return’ to work for the next season,” said Hayashi.

12th January 2024: TBIJ - UK government ‘breaching international law’ with seasonal worker scheme, says UN envoy

Caption: From file: Brexit and the war in Ukraine have cut off the recruitment of seasonal workers from neighboring countries, leaving farms to recruit from as far as Southeast Asia and Latin America | Photo: picture alliance / Photoshot.

This is meant to justify the massive recruitment fees. However, the seasonal worker visa is non-renewable.

“Now, you have workers who can no longer come back and are buried in debt. When you have to travel that far to work for only six months, it’s very hard to make back the money you spent,” Hayashi said.

6th Nov 2023: TBIJ – New Report Urges Stronger Protections for UK’s Seasonal Workers 

12th January 2024: TBIJ - UK government ‘breaching international law’ with seasonal worker scheme, says UN envoy

House of Lords report citing TBIJ evidence demands clampdown on abuse, poor living conditions and illegal fees. 

Original Source: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism by Lucy Nash – 6th November 2023.

The House of Lords has published a new report urging the government to clamp down on the abuse that seasonal workers face on UK farms within the seasonal worker scheme. This follows revelations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) that hundreds of migrant workers in the UK’s agriculture sector have raised welfare issues including threats, wage theft and racism.

The Horticultural Sector Committee’s report, published on Monday, recommends a number of new measures including that the government split up labour inspectors from immigration enforcement. Citing concerns that workers are often deterred from reporting abuse for fear it might affect their immigration status, the report advises the government to “provide an official source of redress to seasonal workers that is not linked to immigration”.

It also urges the Home Office to increase the budget for the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the public body tasked with overseeing this area, and to ringfence some of this money for the hiring of extra labour inspectors.

Read more from this investigation: 

TBIJ reporter Emiliano Mellino identified both of these steps as potential improvements to the system at a hearing with the select committee in June. Mellino’s evidence is cited in the report.

It asks the government to more “proactively enforce” the rules that all seasonal workers are paid the national living wage (£10.42/hour) and given a minimum of 32 hours of work per week. And it recommends updated guidance that makes clear this applies for the full six months of their visa. The current absence of such guidance has resulted in workers being left for weeks without work or pay, the committee heard as evidence.

The report also recommends the introduction of compulsory welfare spot-checks between months three and six at farms employing seasonal workers, with penalties for those failing to abide by labour laws.

It says that all interviews conducted with workers during these spot-checks should be anonymous, confidential and available in the worker’s first language. “It should be made clear that it has no link to their immigration status,” says the report.

In an investigation last month, TBIJ found that nearly half of 845 workers interviewed by the Home Office at farm inspections between 2021 and 2022 raised welfare issues.

The committee also advised the Home Office to issue new guidance to ensure that health and safety standards are upheld for caravans housing workers.

One farm worker interviewed by TBIJ, who also gave evidence to the House of Lords in June, recounted having to stay in a caravan cold enough to put him at risk of hypothermia. “It’s almost the same as living on the street,” he said.

The committee said this new guidance should clarify that workers’ caravans would have to meet British Standard to which residential park homes are built, with local authorities given a duty to inspect and enforce this.

As it stands, councils have virtually no power to enforce housing regulations on seasonal workers’ caravans or even inspect them. “They are almost completely unregulated,” a lawyer told TBIJ.

TBIJ also found that some workers were being charged not only for their accommodation but also gas, electricity, bed linen, duvets, pillows and use of washing machines. Monday’s report encourages the GLAA to consider how to ensure workers are not charged fees beyond what is permitted by law. It also says that rental contracts should be in the seasonal workers’ first language, and signed and agreed ahead of their arrival in the UK.

The committee said it has heard evidence to suggest that some seasonal workers are being charged extremely high illegal recruitment fees – an issue revealed by TBIJ last year. The report urges that the GLAA clamp down on the “scammers, criminals and the overseas staff of scheme operators” who charge these fees.

The Horticultural Sector Committee also demanded that the government uphold its promise to publish its review of the seasonal worker scheme.

“Seasonal workers work in the UK for a short time,” says the report, “but for the time that they are here, they are owed the full protection of existing UK employment laws and standards.”

Additional Reading:

See also: Statement: FLEX on the House of Lords Horticultural Committee report

See also: Seasonal Workers’ Rights; Who’s Responsible?

See also: 5th November 2023 – Politics South East

See also: 25th Oct 2023: DEFRA Former Secretary – Seasonal Worker Scheme should be taken away from Home Office to prevent continued abuses.

See also: 20th Sept 2023: Worker interest groups’ statement on leaving the UK ‘Seasonal Worker Scheme Taskforce’.

See also: 21st July 2023: Vulnerable UK migrant workers at risk as audits of farm recruiters stall.

See also: 27th July 2023: UK’s Seasonal Worker Scheme Raising Human Rights Concerns in the Food Sector.

See also: BHRRC Blog Series: UK Seasonal Worker Scheme Endangers Vulnerable Foreign Workers.

See also: 16th March 2023: Labour agencies to face supermarket scrutiny over foreign worker exploitation claims in UK seasonal worker scheme.

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