An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and The Independent has uncovered a report done by the UK Home Office on the seasonal workers scheme launched in 2019. Allegations in the report detail the mistreatment of migrants on seasonal workers’ visas so egregious that the government could be found in breach of its obligations to prevent modern slavery.
Starved, abused, denied medical care and financially exploited
The Home Office Report found that workers on nearly two-thirds of farms they inspected were not always paid for the hours they had worked. Many also reported having excessive deductions taken from their wages that went beyond the maximum allowed by law.
MP Jackie Doyle-Price told The Independent:
“What this shows is that modern slavery is everywhere. And migrant workers are as likely to be subject to it whether they come here legally or illegally.”
For agricultural seasonal workers to get a visa they must go through six licensed recruiters, who also usually decide where they work and if they can transfer to another farm if they face problems or the work dries up. These recruiters are also supposed to ensure that the workers they hire are paid correctly, treated fairly, and are given hygienic accommodation. However, despite the serious issues raised by inspectors in the report, none of the recruiters lost their license or faced any kind of sanctions for failing to support workers trapped in modern slavery. On top of that, nearly half of the workers interviewed raised basic welfare issues including racism, wage theft, lack of medical care and threats that they would be sent back home if they failed to meet work quotas.
Government accused the government of “state-sponsored exploitation”
55,000 visas are expected to be issued this year under the scheme to people from all over the world to fill employment gaps on hundreds of farms across the UK. But far from the claims of farming minister Mark Spencer that people on the scheme are “very well looked after” and that employers “make sure that their welfare needs are met”, workers have faced exploitation far worse than the government has previously admitted.
MP Jeremy Purvis told the Independant:
“Modern slavery is an ongoing issue in the UK, and Britain is inevitably a draw for many people… that gives us an increased moral responsibility to ensure people who are here legitimately to work are not exploited.”
Purvis also commented that the government’s Illegal Migration Act would only make the problem worse by preventing those using illegal routes to enter the UK from accessing modern slavery protections.
In addition to exploitation on the job, the report also revealed that the use of illegal recruitment fees is more common than the government previously admitted. Workers from six countries said they had paid recruiters up to £7,500 ($9,000 USD) just to get a job in the UK. Human rights lawyers say the failure by the government to investigate and address the findings in this report could end up having legal consequences as it may be in breach of obligations to prevent forced labor under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Better systems, safe migration and protection for survivors
Tied visa systems for low-paid migrant workers like the current UK migrant worker scheme bake in systemic vulnerability to exploitation for workers. At Freedom United we advocate for the dismantling of inhumane and violent immigration systems that play into the hands of traffickers and demand safe migration for all in line with international human rights standards. In addition, The Illegal Migration Act leaves survivors of modern slavery alone and out in the cold when it comes to protection. As MP Purvis alluded to, with no access to support, as well as the dire risks associated with coming forward, perpetrators will go unchallenged, and victims of modern slavery will go on without help.
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