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A Closer Eye: Time for Meaningful Scrutiny in the Agriculture Sector

May 4, 2020

When a new UK scheme for migrant agricultural workers was announced in October 2018, Brexit was the biggest change ahead on the political horizon. Eighteen months later, the world is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seemingly unrelated, the virus and its impacts actually make it even more pressing that government keeps a close eye on working conditions in the sector if they wish to avoid a surge in modern slavery offences.

The risks of the post-Brexit farmworker plans

The new scheme, the Seasonal Workers Pilot, is a ‘temporary migration programme’, i.e. a visa scheme to allow migrant workers into the UK for a short-term period, often with a range of restrictions to rights and entitlements. As FLEX explored at length in its 2019 report, ‘The Risks of Exploitation in Temporary Migration Programmes‘, these programmes present a high risk of labour abuse and exploitation, including modern slavery offences. These risks are due to, or include:

  • Debt bondage, due to debt taken on to pay upfront migration costs and illegal recruitment fees
  • Deception in recruitment, leading to destitution or over-work
  • Barriers to changing job or sector, locking people into harmful situations
  • Destitution due to no recourse to public funds
  • Lack of rights knowledge or how to seek support
  • Multiple dependencies on employer or third-party e.g. for accommodation
  • Barriers to accessing justice, such as tribunal timeframes being too long compared to visa timeframes
  • Non-guaranteed hours / zero-hours contracts, leading to impoverishment

The Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) went live in April 2019. At the time, its terms were:

  • Non-EEA workers only
  • 2,500 workers per year
  • Mandatory 6 month ‘cooling off’ period between visas
  • Workers are not tied to their employer-farm, but to one of two operating companies (Concordia and Pro-Force) who then distribute the workers to the employer-farms
  • Workers are allowed to change employer-farms (i.e. these visas are not ‘tied’ to the employer), though there is no information on the process, its ease or whether such requests are granted.

Agriculture is recognised globally as a high-risk sector for labour abuse and exploitation. The International Labour Organisation ranks agriculture and fishing as the fifth sector in which forced labour is most prevalent. In the UK, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has reported that accommodation at farmworker sites can be overcrowded and unsanitary. It goes on to note that “working conditions are often reported to be poor”, that some people are working extreme overtime. Whilst this doesn’t mean that all farms are perpetrating abuse, and some will certainly be working hard to ensure decent terms, it does mean that scrutiny and ongoing monitoring of conditions are crucial.

COVID-19 will make agriculture a higher risk sector for exploitation

This is only made more important by the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on international travel and the failure of government thus far to extend the length of the visas on the scheme may mean people are forced to choose between returning home at significant risk to their health, continuing to work without the legally required documentation and therefore at heightened risk of labour abuses, or becoming destitute. Agriculture has been much discussed in the media as a sector in need of workers: as low-paid workers from other sectors lose their jobs or have their hours cut, urgency for new income may make them unable to say ‘no’ to abusive terms.

In addition, social distancing may not be feasible in some agricultural settings. The European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT) has written to the European Commission regarding this risk, stating that the danger of substandard accommodation within the sector could become “hotspots for the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which would be devastating and likely trigger an unmanageable health emergency for entire regions.”

Failure to ensure appropriate labour inspection: under-funding and prioritising immigration

Clearly, there has never been a more important moment to ensure sufficient and appropriate labour inspection in agriculture. And yet, so far, that does not appear to be what’s happening. Firstly, UK labour inspection continues to be shamefully under-resourced. The ILO’s recommended ratio of inspectors per workers is 1 to 10,000; the UK has around 0.4. FLEX research has previously found that the UK’s inspection capacity or resourcing also falls well behind comparable EEA countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Norway and Poland. COVID-19 will only hamper it further: whilst some in-person inspections are taking place, these are obviously reduced due to the lockdown and the failure to classify labour inspectors as essential workers.

There is another major concern too: in March 2020, Victoria Atkins MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office, stated that inspections of the scheme are being led by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), with officers from the GLAA accompanying them. Ample evidence shows that when inspections take place aiming to tackle modern slavery are done simultaneously with immigration enforcement bodies, workers are far less likely to report abuse because they fear that speaking to the authorities will lead to harm to themselves, e.g. detention and/or deportation. This enables abuse to compound and escalate over time and also lets exploitative employers operate with impunity. This applies not only to undocumented people, but also those who are secure but uncertain about their rights, as FLEX research for the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group has shown. Allowing UKVI to carry out these inspections in such a high-risk sector will interfere with labour enforcement and victim protection.

An evaluation on the basis of exploitation indicators must be published

Given these risks and flaws, it is imperative that a proper evaluation of the scheme is undertaken. In November 2018 check, FLEX welcomed then Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s commitment to including risk of slavery and trafficking in the evaluation of the pilot in recognition of its risks. This was further bolstered by the government’s April 2019 confirmation that the scheme would “be reviewed before any decisions are taken on running a future scheme”. However, after the General Election 2019 the scheme was expanded from 2,500 workers to 10,000 without publishing an evaluation. In January 2020, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office, Kevin Foster MP, stated that the expansion of the pilot would assist with gathering evidence for its evaluation, which seems to be  in contradiction to the earlier statement from government that the scheme would be reviewed “before any decisions are taken” on its future.

An evaluation must be published, and it must be fit-for-purpose from the perspective of preventing exploitation. FLEX submitted a range of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to seek further information on the data being collected to ascertain whether it would meet anti-slavery aims. For example, we asked for the hours of work done by workers on the Seasonal Workers Pilot since it began in April 2019 and were told that the Home Office does not have this information. It is concerning that the Home Office is not aware of working hours in a high-risk sector and scheme. If people are over-working, they may not have genuine choice as to the amount of overtime required. Potential indicators of forced labour such as involuntary overtime must be considered by the Home Office as it evaluates how the scheme is operating against anti-slavery aims.

It’s vital that this scheme is scrutinised to ensure workers’ conditions are protected. To do this, government needs to:

  • Publish an evaluation of the first year of the scheme, including evaluation against indicators of modern slavery offences such as the ILO’s Forced Labour Indicators 
  • Publish information to demonstrate the efficacy of changing employer-farms for workers under the scheme
  • Establish minimum guaranteed hours to ensure people are earning a living wage or more
  • Ensure employers/operators accept self-certification of self-isolation for workers
  • Ensure employers/operators pay SSP or higher for those a) self-isolating due to having COVID-19 symptoms and b) with a positive diagnosis of it
  • Extend temporary visas by an additional six months to a) ease shortages of workers in the sector and b) respond to travel restrictions and the risk to health of travelling
  • Provide extra funding for labour inspection agencies to undertake targeted enforcement work within the sector; this should include checks on accommodation and COVID-19 requirements such as PPE and distancing
  • Ensure separation of the duties of labour inspectorates from Immigration Enforcement so that all workers can report abuse, exploitation and employer practices that place them at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 safely
  • Support channels for unions and migrants’ rights organisations to access farmworkers more easily

These steps and ongoing, worker-centred monitoring of conditions in the sector will help to ensure that we do not have more modern slavery in our supply chains in the months to come.