Hundreds of Ukrainians have allegedly fled conditions akin to modern slavery on U.K. farms. With an expired visa and unable to return home, many now feel trapped and unprotected.
“I feel like I am a hostage in the UK”
Ukrainians make up two-thirds of the visa holders under the U.K.’s T5 seasonal work scheme. While working on farms, some have reportedly faced extreme exploitation.
One Ukrainian worker provided an account of her experiences to Work Rights Centre, a charity that supports migrant people to leave precarious work and access better opportunities.
An IT expert with two university degrees, she went to the U.K. with her partner to make a living. But her experience there was appalling. “Working on the farm is probably one of the worst experiences and worst treatment of my life,” she writes.
Quoted in the Guardian, she talks of abuse and exploitation on a cherry farm where she worked for a period: “Through threats and humiliation, people were forced to work tirelessly wearing off the skin on their hands and feet until it bleeds.”
Since fleeing the cherry farm, she and her partner now do informal cleaning and construction jobs. But she says they are not the only Ukrainians in this situation. The Guardian quotes:
“We have come across many, many other Ukrainians who, like us, have run away from farms, cannot return to Ukraine and so have been forced to work here illegally. I feel like I am a hostage in the UK. My parents have told me I must not go back to Ukraine under any circumstances because our city is being shelled. I feel trapped.”
No right to remain, unable to go home
This testimony is in line with the findings of a joint review conducted by the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which was made public late last year.
The report found that seasonal farm workers on a post-Brexit pilot scheme faced “unacceptable” welfare conditions, including accommodation with no running water, bathrooms or kitchens, and racism and insufficient safety equipment at work.
Some people who have fled these conditions could have the opportunity to change to a different visa route and access other types of jobs from May 3, under the Ukraine extension scheme. However, Ukrainian farm workers whose visas expired on or before December 31, 2021 will not be eligible for this switch.
“It is dreadful that hundreds of Ukrainians here, worried sick about family, friends and war crimes at home, now find themselves destitute, their seasonal visas expired due to having to flee conditions on farms.”
O’Neill urged the home secretary to grant the right to remain to seasonal workers in the U.K. and allow them to bring their families to safety in the U.K.