Seasonal farm workers vulnerable to exploitation

In 2021 the UK issued more than 22,000 Seasonal Worker visas to people coming from abroad to work on farms and to help with harvesting fresh produce.

The majority of people applying for the six-month visa are recruited via labour agencies, and last year the majority of these temporary work visas were issued to Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian and Belarusian nationals.

Whilst the majority of people who come to work in the UK are paid properly and treated well, many fall victim to unscrupulous gang-masters who profit from their vulnerable circumstances by exploiting them.

What makes seasonal workers vulnerable?

Seasonal workers who come to the UK often do not speak English fluently, so are at risk of not understanding contracts they are made to sign, and have difficulty asking for help or leaving a dangerous situation, especially if the locations they are working in are rural or isolated.

Some recruiters are not honest with descriptions of the work expected or accommodation available, so when workers arrive in the UK, the reality does not always meet their expectations. It is then difficult to back out or leave.

Workers who are charged high ‘agency fees’ by unscrupulous agents to travel or find work, can find themselves trapped in debt bondage, where they must work to pay back debts before earning anything themselves.

If the gang-masters are rogue, then accommodation provided for workers can be of poor quality, dangerous, or unsuitable (such as old caravans, over-crowded housing, or agricultural buildings). They are over-charged for the accommodation and associated bills, with rent coming out of their pay before they receive it. When accommodation is provided alongside the job, then refusal to work in poor conditions could result in the employee losing their job and facing homelessness.

Many migrant workers do not understand working culture or workers’ rights in the UK, so can be made to work extremely long hours with poor protective clothing or equipment.

Temporary Seasonal Working visas are attached to a sponsor, so if the job is lost, then the worker has no right to remain in the UK. They also have no right to seek work in other areas outside agriculture, or apply for any benefits. This makes them vulnerable to being coerced or threatened with ‘losing their jobs’ if they don’t comply with a certain demand. This heavy reliance on their employer makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

If workers have found jobs through a criminal network, it’s likely they are also having other areas of their lives controlled, such as housing, transport, and ‘translation’ services around banking and work contracts. They can be made to open new bank accounts which they have no control over, and will be paid low amounts whilst their real wages are diverted into accounts they cannot access.

What is being done to prevent exploitation?

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) was set up by the government to try and regulate the supply of labour into the workforce and set standards on how people must be treated.

All businesses who supply and receive people to use for labour must apply for a licence from the GLAA and adhere to the legal standards set around working hours, health and safety, accommodation, minimum wage, and transport.

Businesses not adhering to the standards set, or who recruit people into the seasonal labour market without a licence, can be prosecuted.

The Farm Work Welfare App, developed by the Clewer Initiative, is designed to help tackle exploitation in the agricultural supply chain, and provides information and help to workers, employees, and rural communities who fall victim to traffickers, organised criminals, or unlicensed labour providers. Complaints made via the app are sent to the Modern Slavery Helpline, and information on the app is available in eight languages.

How can I tell if someone is being exploited?

Does someone working near your home, or alongside you at work, appear anxious, exhausted, or hungry?

Do they wash or sleep at their place of work?

Do they have no access to money, or never have enough food for lunch?

Does someone seem to control them/aspects of their life- transport, accommodation, money, documents?

Are they unsure of where they are or where they’re living.

Call the Modern Slavery and Exploitation helpline on: 08000 121 700