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Filling the gaps: preventing increased risks of exploitation for Ukrainian workers on the Seasonal Worker Visa

April 8, 2022
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Kate Roberts

Head of Policy

The Seasonal Worker visa is a short term work visa which allows visa holders to enter the UK for 6 months in any 12-month period to work in agriculture or horticulture. As part of the UK’s response to the invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian workers who had entered the country to work in farms under the Seasonal Worker Visa route had their visas extended beyond six months and until the end of 2022. This extension, however, does not allow them to bring family members to safety, access public funds, or leave their work in agriculture, even if there is no work available. It also maintains their dependency on their employer – including for income, housing and immigration status.[1]

FLEX, together with others, wrote to the Home Secretary and Minister of Immigration early in March 2022 to highlight the increased risks of exploitation for Ukrainian workers on the Seasonal Worker Visa (SWV) due to the dangerous combination of their changed circumstances due to the invasion of Ukraine, the restricted terms of the Seasonal Workers Visa, and the general risks associated with agricultural work and the SWV (see FLEX’s assessment of the risk of forced labour on the Seasonal Workers Pilot).[2] Concerns set out in the letter include that workers are highly dependent on their employers, including for information, accommodation and work. They have 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. We noted that 19,920 SW visas issued in 2021 (67% of the total) were to Ukrainian nationals.

On 29th March, the Government announced the introduction of the Ukraine Extension Scheme. FLEX welcomes the increased options which this additional scheme will give to many Ukrainians in the UK, including people working in agriculture on the Seasonal Worker Visa. The ability to work in any sector, access public funds and to study will do much to prevent exploitation.

We are pleased that the Ukraine Extension Scheme addresses many of the recommendations in our letter and takes into account findings from our longer term work into risks experienced by those on the Seasonal Worker visa.[3] We are keen to work proactively with government, Seasonal Worker visa scheme operators, community groups, legal advisors and others to ensure that these increased options can be accessed by workers in practice and that support is in place to prevent exploitation escalating as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.

Workers on the Seasonal Worker visa are in the UK temporarily. They are living and working in rural and relatively isolated areas. They may not speak English and will need support to access information and advice on their immigration options and on practical measures to enable them to safely remain in the UK for longer than they initially intended and to live here with their families. This will include finding employment, housing, and schooling for children. To make sure that workers on the Seasonal Worker visa are able to make use of the options available to them under the Ukraine Extension Scheme and to successfully avoid exploitation additional measures are needed:

  • There is an urgent need for specialist immigration advice and practical assistance to enable Ukrainians on temporary visas to make informed decisions about the immigration options that are best for them, and to ensure that individuals can meet basic needs such as housing and income in the interim.
  • We are concerned that there are no provisions in place for individuals on the Seasonal Workers visa before they are granted new permissions under the Extension Scheme, which will only open to applications 3 May. Even then it will likely require workers to wait while their visas are processed. We already know of workers who have left the farms they were working on due to circumstances resulting from the invasion of Ukraine and are currently in a situation where they have breached their immigration status, have no recourse to public funds or benefits and are prohibited from working. Given the desperation and urgent need to safeguard their families which Ukrainian workers on the Seasonal Worker visa will be experiencing, delaying the opening of the Ukraine Extension Scheme to 3 May increases the likelihood of workers being pushed into exploitative working conditions.
  • We are additionally concerned that even once on the Extension Scheme, workers will not be able to quickly and easily bring their families to safety in the UK. They will instead need to apply to sponsor family members under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, assuming they can meet the accommodation requirements, or to arrange for someone else to sponsor them if not. Both of these options will mean delays, and the second increases safeguarding and exploitation risks.

The UK’s reliance on rapidly developed and frequently changing visa schemes exposes how unfit for purpose the UK’s asylum system is in practice, with its long delays and uncertainty prohibiting integration and rebuilding lives. The visa schemes available have inevitably left gaps in support, and people who do not fit easily into one of the new schemes will slip between them. This has been the case for some Ukrainian workers on the Seasonal Worker Visa who have been stuck on a scheme that is not suitable to their changed circumstances.

To achieve this, we recommend:

  1. Clear and accessible information on the available visa and asylum options must be proactively communicated to all Ukrainian nationals in the UK, with targeted outreach to those on the Seasonal Workers visa.
  2. Specialist legal advice on immigration and on welfare entitlements needs to be made available to all Ukrainian nationals. Peoples’ circumstances may not fit easily within any of the new visa schemes, and people will need reliable information and support to understand their options and how to navigate the immigration system to avoid losing their immigration status. This support is particularly important in the context of the UK’s hostile environment, where exploiters may use immigration control and deportation as a threat to maintain control over those with insecure immigration status. People need to know they are safe to come forward and seek help whatever their immigration circumstances are to avoid an increased risk of exploitation.
  3. There should be increased resourcing for prevention efforts with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority working with SWV scheme operators and farms engaged in the scheme to ensure that workers have access to advice and information and are supported to access the options available to them.
  4. Workers on the Ukraine Extension Scheme should be eligible to bring family members to the UK.
  5. Ukrainian SWV holders should have immediate access to public funds and confirmed eligibility to work in sectors other than agriculture prior to the opening of the Ukraine Extension Scheme on 3 May and while an application is pending.
  6. There needs to be long-term planning towards integration. Local Authorities should be equipped and resourced to work together with specialist organisations to provide access to services, language classes, education, employability skills and options, general advice, support and information.
  7. Given the long-term impact of the vulnerabilities created by the current situation in Ukraine, there needs to be reassurance and clarity over options for Ukrainians to maintain a regular status beyond the three years currently offered on the existing Ukraine schemes.

8 April 2022

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[1] At the time of writing, there are three ‘Ukraine schemes’ or immigration routes specifically for those affected by the conflict in Ukraine. These are: The Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (Homes for Ukraine Scheme); the Ukraine Family Scheme visa; the Ukraine Extension scheme (to be opened 3 May 2022).

[2] See also Seasonal Workers Pilot review, 2019, DEFRA, Home Office, published December 2021; FLEX’s response to the Government’s review of the first year of the Seasonal Workers Pilot, January 2022; and Dame Sara Thornton raises concerns over labour exploitation risk for migrant workers in the agricultural sector, January 2022.

[3] See for example; Assessment of the risks of human trafficking for forced labour on the UK Seasonal Workers Pilot, March 2021, FLEX