News this week that the UK Government is expected to announce plans to increase immigration to address labour shortages comes as little surprise. Without migrant workers, many industries, including the UK’s agricultural sector, would not survive. Yet the UK’s planning for immigration to meet this need has been short-term and rushed, with little benefit from independent scrutiny or learning and little regard to ensuring a fair deal for workers.
Risks of short-term work visas
FLEX has continued to warn that short-term work visas are inherently high risk for workers, with high migration costs increasing risks of debt bondage and the short time in the UK making it difficult for workers to access information or rights. These risks are well-evidenced for both of the main short-term work visas in the UK, the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa and the Seasonal Worker Visa for the agricultural sector. The Government itself is aware of some of these risks from its own review of the pilot scheme for the Seasonal Worker Visa, which was launched in 2019 with 6-month, non-renewable visas for 2,500 agricultural workers. And yet since then, the scheme has been rapidly expanded, with 40,000 visas now available in 2022 and workers being recruited globally from as far as Nepal and Indonesia. Whilst no plans have been set out for the scheme beyond 2024, the indication is that the number of visas available will be increased under the Truss administration. Further expansion of the scheme without proper planning and oversight will further increase risks to workers.
Responding to risks
Rather than addressing these known risks, decisions on the design and structure of the Seasonal Worker Visa scheme have come with little apparent consultation or scrutiny or lead in time before implementation. This creates unrealistic timeframes for planning and carrying out due diligence checks in countries of origin, developing information and advice services, or ensuring that labour market enforcement systems in the UK are resourced and up to the task. Investigations such as by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the Guardian have found workers alleging to have paid recruitment fees (which are banned under the scheme) amounting in some cases to over £5,000. Not only are workers who have borrowed high amounts of money at risk of debt bondage, the concerns around recruitment fees also exposes the many gaps around regulation and enforcement in international recruitment and raises questions around jurisdiction and accountability and what access workers have to rights, if any.
Many of these issues are intensified for workers entering on the even shorter duration temporary visas which have been opened within the scheme, often again with little notice. As in 2021, when the Government announced with little warning that it would introduce short term temporary visas for HGV drivers and poultry workers over the Christmas period, it was recently announced that 2,000 visas of the 2022 quota are 8-week long visas for the poultry sector, which will be issued from 1st November and valid until the end of December 2022. It is unclear where workers will be recruited from and the challenges of recruiting workers willing to migrate for 8 weeks will no doubt be compounded by the decrease in the value of pound sterling, meaning that money earned in the UK is worth less.
Ukrainian nationals on the UK’s Seasonal Worker visa scheme
The ongoing changes in the options available to Ukrainians on the Seasonal Worker visa is an indicator of how complex and problematic restrictive migration schemes such as these are. In 2021 67% (19,920) of the workers who had visas issued to the UK under the Seasonal Worker scheme were Ukrainian nationals. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia necessitated urgent changes to the scheme as it was clear that not only would many Ukrainian nationals be unable to return to Ukraine at the end of their 6-month visa, but that the war in Ukraine changed their circumstances in the UK. Initially, the UK government created an option for all Ukrainian workers to have their Seasonal Worker visa extended until the end of December 2022. FLEX and others raised concerns in writing to the Home Secretary and the Minister that this extension with no change in visa conditions did not meet the changed circumstances of Ukrainian agricultural workers. Concerns set out included that workers remained highly dependent on their employers and had no option to change sectors or work outside the scheme, as well as no guarantee that they will in fact be given work within the scheme due to the work’s seasonal nature. This, combined with the fact that Seasonal Worker visa holders have no recourse to public funds, brings with it the risk of destitution and debt. Workers on the scheme also cannot bring family members from Ukraine to safety in the UK.
On 29th March 2022 the Ukraine Extension Scheme (UES) was announced. This was a significant improvement in terms of the options available to those who were eligible for the scheme. Any Ukrainian on a UK visa which expired after 1 Jan 2022 and was issued before 18 March 2022 could switch into the scheme which gave three years leave, permitted any type of work and recourse to public funds. FLEX welcomed the scheme, while questioning the reason behind the need to have entered or had a visa for the UK by the 18 March, as well as the inability to directly sponsor family members. In mid-September 2022, a concession was announced which means that all Ukrainians with permission to enter the UK from 18 March 2022 until 16 May 2023 are eligible to apply to the UES.
The introduction of an increased range of options for Ukrainian nationals in the UK on the seasonal worker scheme is welcome but shows that it has been a case of playing catch to address the risks of short term visas for workers. Changes to visas or new options to switch employers must be accompanied by access to independent information and advice, and even if workers are able to access this, there are always risks that workers’ individual circumstances will fall outside of eligibility criteria such as the time period, the need to bring family members to safety, or the cases of non-Ukrainian nationals also affected by the war.
Visas which give workers more options would help to address some of these issues. For example, rather than compelling workers who would prefer to work and earn money to leave the UK and scheme operators to recruit a fresh cohort of workers every six months, a sensible immigration policy would give workers who have an offer of ongoing work the option of applying to renew their visas, should they wish to, and a route to settlement. Workers would then be able to earn for longer, to offset migration costs, and having longer in the UK would increase options for accessing information and advice. Employers would also benefit from a larger number of more experienced workers who have had time to build their skills.
A level playing field or a race to the bottom?
In the context of ongoing calls to expand the Seasonal Worker visa scheme, the UK needs to take a serious look at the scheme’s structure and address relevant risks and concerns, including those in its own review of the pilot scheme, to date. The higher the risk of exploitation contained within the structure of the visa, the more regulation and oversight will be needed to avoid creating the conditions for exploitation. Transparency and independent monitoring should be embedded into the scheme, to establish what works to prevent and what creates risk. There will also be much learning from the changes to the scheme and options available to Ukrainian nationals on the Seasonal Worker visa which risk being lost without proper monitoring. It is in the best interest of everyone, from the workers themselves, to the operators, the growers and the retailers, to create a visa system where workers have options, can raise complaints and access support, and which ultimately maintains a level playing field, rather than facilitating a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ access to rights.