A report released this week has warned that the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, a new pilot initiative allowing overseas workers to take up agricultural work, puts workers at direct risk of human trafficking and forced labor.
The scheme was put in place following the U.K.’s exit from the E.U., after concerns were raised that workers from Eastern Europe, who the agricultural sector is hugely reliant on, would struggle to work in the U.K. because of curbs on freedom of movement.
The report, written by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) and the Fife Migrants Forum, identified a number of indicators of forced labor being present on the seasonal workers pilot, including risk of unfree recruitment, risk of work and life under duress, and the risk of impossibility of leaving an employer.
Commenting on the findings of the report, FLEX chief executive Lucila Granada said:
“The report reveals that the Seasonal Workers scheme is increasing the risk of human trafficking for forced labor in the U.K. agricultural sector…The evidence calls for an urgent review of the scheme, and for the U.K. Government to carefully consider and mitigate potential risks for workers on the Seasonal Worker Visa and in any other future temporary routes for labor migration.”
As reported in the Courier and Reuters, workers have claimed they have been made to “feel like slaves”, feeling pressured into doing more work than they had time for and living in conditions described as dirty and unhygienic with no washing facilities.
62% of workers reported incurring debts to travel to the U.K. to work, while 66% of workers on Seasonal Worker Visas reported being threatened with loss of work, and 17% reported threats of deportation from their employer.
The report also found workers employed on zero-hour contracts, despite the former Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes telling the House of Commons in May 2019 that the scheme operators could not offer such contracts.
Commenting on the report’s findings, Iain Brown, chairman of NFU Scotland Horticulture Working Group said:
“The FLEX report has highlighted many flaws in the UK-wide scheme, particularly the debt burden placed on migrant workers, and poor or false information that has sadly resulted in some unsuitable and uninformed candidates coming to Scotland to work.”
In response to the report, a U.K. government spokesman said:
“The government takes the safety and wellbeing of seasonal workers extremely seriously, with all farms vetted by the licensed Scheme Operators…Workers should only be placed with farms which adhere to all relevant legislation, pay the National Minimum Wage and provide suitable living conditions.”