Supermarkets have raised concerns around the U.K.’s seasonal worker visa system which is leaving migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation, and supermarkets at risk of falling foul of their human rights obligations.
Criticisms have been levelled against the scheme since its hasty inception with warning from labor rights groups being ignored by the government in favor of a swift roll out to plug labor shortages as a result of the U.K. leaving the European Union.
The seasonal worker visa is a six-month visa that does not guarantee full employment for the duration of the visa, nor is there an agreed minimum of hours. This means that seasonal workers are effectively on zero-hour contracts even though these are banned under the scheme, and they are faced with the possibility of not being able to earn enough to cover the fees incurred to work in the U.K. in the first place.
Though recruitment fees are illegal, workers are expected to fund the cost of travel and visas which can put workers thousands of pounds in debt.
David Camp, director of the Association of Labour Providers told the Guardian:
“We should have a system where workers don’t have to go into debt to come and work in the UK. That should be a given,” he said.
Camp says an example of the lack of planning was the extra 8,000 visas issued under the scheme at the end of June, meaning once workers were sourced and brought to Britain there was little left of the harvest to work on and pay back the cost of travelling here.
Workers pushed into exploitative work
Since the seasonal worker visa pilot in 2019, over 33,000 workers have travelled to the U.K. on the scheme. The scheme expanded rapidly despite concerns being raised early on. Now, supermarkets are urgently hosting meetings to discuss how to prevent even more workers facing exploitation in their supply chains.
Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, the chief executive of the Work Rights Centre, told the Guardian:
“There is also a risk that indebted migrant workers will feel like they have no choice but to recoup their costs by staying on to work on the black market, where exploitation is rife. To protect migrant workers from exploitation, we need a seasonal worker visa where hours and duration of work are guaranteed.”