FLEX has started working on a new research and outreach project that aims to build evidence for the need to make temporary work schemes in agriculture safer and fairer for migrant workers in the UK. With funding from the Justice Together coalition and working in partnership with the Rosmini Centre Wisbech and Citizens’ Advice South Lincolnshire, we will be conducting interviews with migrant workers on UK farms. As well as supporting these workers to understand their rights and access support services where needed, we will be gathering information to understand their experiences, concerns and problems surrounding their work and migration status in the UK. With their insight, we will look at how stakeholders and policymakers can make positive changes in the future.
Background: migrant workers in British agriculture
Since the end of free movement which had previously allowed European migrant workers to enter the UK without visa restrictions, the UK government has introduced a new Seasonal Workers Visa enabling a limited number of overseas workers to be recruited directly into the UK agriculture sector. In some senses a revival of the earlier Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme which stood from 1945 to 2013, the visa allows employers to fill staffing gaps on farms. The new visa limits migrant workers to six months in the UK and restricts options of where they can work and for whom.
The Seasonal Workers Visa scheme was initially introduced in April 2019 as a pilot scheme, and then expanded the following year. There is a quota of 30,000 visas to be issued for work starting in 2022, with a reserve of a further 10,000 visas to be issued if necessary and if the scheme is deemed to be successful. To date, most workers on the scheme have come to the UK from the republics of the former Soviet Union, in particular Ukraine and more recently Tajikistan, with smaller numbers from locations as diverse as Nepal, Romania and Barbados.
We will be interviewing migrant workers on the Seasonal Worker Visa to gain an understanding of their experiences of the scheme and agricultural work in the UK. We are also keen to learn from the expertise, experience and requirements of farm owners and managers, officially appointed scheme operators, recruiters, unions, supermarkets and other vital stakeholders in supply chains, and from frontline and community organisations who support migrant workers.
Building on previous successes
This research will build on the evidence base and track record of our previous work with agricultural workers, including our 2021 research into the experiences of workers on the Seasonal Worker Visa pilot programme in Scotland, undertaken in partnership with the Fife Migrants Forum and independent consultant Caroline Robinson.
Since undertaking that research, FLEX has been involved in significant policy work on reducing the risks of labour exploitation in agriculture. We issued a public response to the UK Government’s own review of the Seasonal Worker pilot programme in January 2022, making a series of recommendations focusing on worker welfare. Our work with Fife Migrants Forum in Scotland led to the Scottish government establishing an independent helpline for agricultural workers based at a local charity, and contacting all local authorities in Scotland encouraging them to request the removal of an exemption that prevents local authorities from inspecting caravan sites on farms. The Scottish Government has also committed to seek legislative change to remove this exemption. In addition, since we published our report, new guidance for Scheme Operators has been issued clarifying that zero-hours contracts should not be used within the Seasonal Workers Visa.
We have also been paying close attention to the specific issues facing Ukrainian nationals working in agriculture in the UK. Since the new visa was introduced in 2019, Ukrainians have consistently represented a majority of workers on the scheme and this remains the case in the most recent Home Office data for the first quarter of 2022. This period overlaps with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the outbreak of fighting across much of their home country. We have drawn attention to the particular risks of exploitation for Ukrainian nationals in the context of this situation, as well as the gaps in provisions that the UK Government has made for Ukrainian nationals who cannot simply return home upon the expiry of their Seasonal Worker Visa.
We want to hear from you…
If you have any expertise, experience or insight into the Seasonal Worker Visa programme, or on migrant labour on British farms, then we would like to hear from you. This may be because you or somebody you know has worked in agriculture, or you have hired or recruited people for this work, supported farm workers’ welfare, or undertaken related research.
Additionally, if you represent a community group or other form of service that may be able to offer support or advice to migrant workers, please do get in touch with us as we will be providing workers with information that can help them during our outreach.
If you feel you have anything to contribute, if you would like to talk (on or off the record) to the research team, or if you would like to be kept informed with our progress in this project, please get in touch via [email protected].
Rosmini Centre Wisbech is a community centre that supports outreach and integration for migrants around the rural areas of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk. They provide employment support, translation services, legal advice, health information outreach and other frontline services for people in the area.
Citizens’ Advice South Lincolnshire is part of the Citizens’ Advice network across England and Wales. They provide free, confidential, impartial advice and campaign on issues affecting people’s lives.
Justice Together is a unique collaboration launched in 2020 with a decade-long vision to ensure that people who use the UK immigration system can access justice fairly and equally. A coalition of funders, collaborators and advisors, it aims to strengthen the connection between lived experience, front-line advice and influencing strategies to create lasting change.