A recent Guardian investigation has found new evidence of migrant workers being saddled with debts to get jobs on British farms. This isn’t the first such story and it won’t be the last; FLEX has been warning since 2018 that high upfront costs for visas and travel, and insufficient safeguards against recruitment fees, would lead to dangerous levels of debt – and with it, risk of exploitation – for workers on the UK’s Seasonal Worker Visa.
While fees are being charged overseas, we argue that poor planning and insufficient consultation has helped create the current situation. In the rush to rapidly secure the labour of tens of thousands of farmworkers, and with employers now less able to rely upon pre-existing labour supply chains from the EU and Ukraine, the Government’s already-risky short-term visa for agriculture has been hastily expanded without sufficient planning, oversight, safeguards, or due diligence. A poorly-designed immigration scheme is exposing workers to the likelihood of being financially exploited by agents and other intermediaries who are benefitting from the scheme.
Why is this happening?
The Seasonal Worker Visa was introduced as a pilot of 2,500 workers in 2019 and has since been rapidly expanded first to 10,000 in 2020, then 30,000 in 2021 and finally to 40,000 this year. The countries workers are being recruited from has also grown, from five to now more than 50, with workers coming from as far afield as Uzbekistan, Nepal and Indonesia. These expansions have come with little warning from the Government, creating short timeframes for carrying out due diligence checks in countries of origin.
Numerous stories have since emerged about workers from these territories being charged extortionate and often illegal recruitment fees to secure visas. Recent investigations have found migrant workers in the UK agricultural and care sectors having paid recruitment fees to agents totalling four or even five figure sums (see also The Grocer). We warned back in 2019 that the pilot version of the Seasonal Worker Visa carried systematic risks of fees and indebtedness, but the Government has since failed to put sufficient safeguards.
Who is charging these fees?
Some costs charged to workers are built into the scheme, such as travel and the £259 visa fee. These are likely to be funded by personal debts to be paid back from earnings made in the UK. Additionally, there are administrative costs related to the processing of documents and applications, as well as local recruiters sourcing applicants, some of whom are charging workers directly, which is not allowed under UK rules. Further middlemen are also getting involved, with workers assuming they have to pay or that doing so will help guarantee them work.
As highlighted in our 2021 report, 'the GLAA [Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, a Home Office body] does not conduct in country license or compliance inspections of overseas labour providers. This limited oversight of overseas labour providers and their activities in workers’ country of origin poses a range of risks of workers facing deceptive recruitment, threats at point of recruitment and recruitment linked to debt.'
With workers bearing high costs, there is a very real risk of dangerous levels of indebtedness. Workers concerned about paying back debts are more vulnerable to exploitation, as they are more liable to put up with unacceptable working conditions out of a pressing need to make back their out-of-pocket costs. This should come as no surprise, as risk of debt bondage is a recognised risk associated with temporary migration programmes (see FLEX 2019). Moreover, FLEX’s assessment of the 2020 version of the Seasonal Worker Visa scheme found that 62% of survey respondents had entered into debt in order to come to the UK. It is worth noting that most SWV holders at the time of the research came from countries much closer to the UK than more recent cohorts.
'I think we are all trapped. We have no choice, we paid money in order to come here, and now we must get this money back. Our families cannot pay our tickets back, simply because they have no money. We all have debts; therefore, we all feel trapped.' Matvej, SWV worker from Belarus, FLEX 2021.
FLEX proposals to help eradicate these fees
FLEX has been working with migrant agricultural workers to better understand the risks of labour exploitation that they are exposed to. Our 2021 report explored a number of measures that should be introduced in order to mitigate the risks of exploitation, and we are continuing to reach out to workers to better understand their exposure to exploitation. With the benefit of these insights, we propose a number of things that can be done to reduce the potential for recruitment fees entering labour supply chains for British farms, and to ensure that migrant farmworkers aren’t working with the worry of having to pay back scheme-related debts:
1. The £259 visa fee for the UK’s Tier 5 Seasonal Worker Visa should be scrapped
The Seasonal Worker Visa is a low-pay migration route and as such, making people pay visa fees before receiving any income is likely push them into debt. Visa fees should be removed to reflect the limited timeframe and wages available to workers on the scheme.
In addition, having any fees associated with recruitment muddiesthe waters and sustains an expectation that workers will have to pay to secure work in the UK. Removing the visa charge would help to establish a clear zero-fees principle.
2. A minimum number of paid hours of work should be guaranteed
While the minimum hourly wage on the Seasonal Worker Wage is above the national minimum wage at £10.10, workers have no guarantee of the number of hours they will receive once in the UK. One of the four UK Labour Providers does contractually guarantee workers a minimum of 32 paid hours per week, and it will be useful to see how this commitment is upheld in practice. If workers on this contract do enjoy more stable incomes, then good practice should be upheld more broadly across the Seasonal Worker Visa scheme. This would help guarantee workers a decent profit from their six months in the UK and ensure they are not left in debt when they return.
3. Consider who should pay for a migrant worker’s journey to participate in UK agriculture
There is currently an array of costs borne by workers, from air fares to securing biometric documentation, all of which must be paid before a worker has started earning any money from their time in the UK.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) advocates for an “Employer Pays” principle through its International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS). As the Association of Labour Providers notes in its Worker Welfare handbook, the UK government is a signatory to this principle multiple times over through the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, through its multilateral Principles for Tackling Modern Slavery in Supply Chains agreed with the US, Canada and New Zealand, and in the ILO General principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment which insists that ‘[n]o recruitment fees or related costs should be charged to, or otherwise borne by, workers or jobseekers’.
Under such a principle, a worker migrating for a temporary work scheme such as the UK Seasonal Worker Visa should personally not face any up-front costs, with full air fares, administrative and recruitment costs being sponsored by the employer. Such models exist elsewhere in the world. ‘Guestworkers’ in Canadian agriculture from Mexico and several Caribbean countries have their full round-trip fares and expenses covered by their employers, while in New Zealand farms in need of migrant labour must sign up as a Recognised Employer and contribute 50% of workers’ travel expenses from Pacific island nations, as well as fronting all their healthcare and other administrative costs.
In the UK context, with profit margins squeezed in certain parts of the agriculture supply chain, it may be necessary to establish a wider definition of who should cover these costs. For example, the highly price-competitive supermarket sector may need to cooperate with farms and Labour Providers to meet the cost of bringing in workers.
4. Increase official oversight and monitoring of the international recruitment process
The UK should be vetting and licensing any organisation responsible for recruiting workers into its Seasonal Worker scheme. To aid this, new resources should be made available for the GLAA to conduct overseas licence and compliance inspections and for all relevant labour market enforcement authorities to establish strong links with workers and worker representatives in order to gather intelligence about worker treatment at point of recruitment (see FLEX 2021).
Other countries with temporary migration programmes, most notably Canada, have opted for models based on greater cooperation and contact between the country of origin and host country for migrant workers, such as comprehensive Bilateral Labour Agreements.
5. Ensure workers know their rights
As we argued in 2021, employment contracts enforceable under UK law should be 'shared with SWV workers in their country of origin, translated into workers’ native languages and signed by employers and workers prior to travel'. These contracts should be transparent about realistic earnings and make it clear that additional recruitment fees are not required by either the employer or the UK government. As we understand, Scheme Operators are working to get these messages across.
It is unacceptable that workers should bear high costs in order to undertake essential agricultural work in the UK. The Seasonal Worker scheme has been ill-planned and rushed, leaving little time for due diligence or support measures. This fails workers as well as decent employers and businesses.
The UK government needs to take responsibility for what happens to workers within its visa schemes. By following the international principles it has signed up to, learning from past and international examples, and improving consultation with workers and employers, the UK can take positive steps to eradicate these unfair costs to workers.
If you would like to contribute to FLEX’s ongoing research into this subject, perhaps with your expertise on good practice, or if you would like to be kept up-to-date on our progress, then please get in touch via [email protected].