Seasonal worker visa puts migrants at risk of exploitation, say supermarkets

Industry fears hastily designed scheme is leading to human rights abuses and debt bondage in supply chains

Britain’s hastily designed seasonal worker visa is causing a headache for supermarkets, which are concerned its structure is incompatible with their public pledges on preventing human rights abuses and debt bondage in their supply chains.

All the big supermarkets have been holding urgent roundtable meetings with growers and others in the industry over the past month to try to find a way of preventing workers from being further exploited under it.

The scheme was created to create a cheap supply of workers on six-month visas so British farms could plug labour shortages after Brexit. But many in the industry are concerned its structure is putting vulnerable migrants at risk of exploitation.

Charging recruitment fees is against the law but it is within the rules of the visa for workers to bear the vast cost of international flights and visas, which can put them thousands of pounds in debt, even when no illegal fees are charged.

David Camp, the director of the Association of Labour Providers, said: “We’ve been asking for significant changes to the scheme for years. What I find unfortunate is that it takes people to suffer before action is taken.”

Camp said the government needed to take early decisions about visa allocation so recruiters could put in proper time to sourcing workers carefully. He also said the scheme rules needed to be redesigned.

“We should have a system where workers don’t have to go into debt to come and work in the UK. That should be a given,” he said.

Camp says an example of the lack of planning was the extra 8,000 visas issued under the scheme at the end of June, meaning once workers were sourced and brought to Britain there was little left of the harvest to work on and pay back the cost of travelling here.

When the visa was piloted to prepare for Brexit in 2019, just 2,500 workers were brought over on it. Since then it has expanded rapidly. More than 33,000 people had come to Britain on the scheme this year by September, according to Home Office data.

While zero-hours contracts are banned under the scheme, there are no agreed minimum hours, nor a guarantee of employment for the full six months of the visa.

Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, the chief executive of the Work Rights Centre, said: “The fact that seasonal workers are still indebted after months of precarious employment shows that some farms treat them like zero-hours workers in all but name.

“There is also a risk that indebted migrant workers will feel like they have no choice but to recoup their costs by staying on to work on the black market, where exploitation is rife. To protect migrant workers from exploitation, we need a seasonal worker visa where hours and duration of work are guaranteed.”

A Home Office spokesperson said they would take action where abuse was reported and proven. They added: “The seasonal workers route has been running for three years and we continue to work to prevent exploitation and clamp down on poor working conditions while people are in the UK.

“We continue to work closely with scheme operators, who have responsibility for ensuring the welfare of migrant workers, preventing zero-hour contracts and managing the recruitment process overseas.”


Emily Dugan

The GuardianTramp

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