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FLEX on Brexit: government must protect migrant farm workers from exploitation

November 15, 2018

The government recently announced a new temporary worker programme for British agriculture and horticulture, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Pilot (SAWP). Under the scheme, workers from outside the EU will be able to come and work in the UK for a fixed period.

The government has so far released little information about how the scheme will work, but we do know the following:

  • The scheme will be piloted for two years from 2019
  • Only workers from outside the EU will be allowed entry; all countries outside the Union will be allowed to send workers
  • Workers will be able to stay for a maximum of 6 months per year
  • Workers will apply to come via visas under the standard immigration system, as per other immigration routes; there will be visa fees of £244 per person (£189 for citizens of Macedonia or Turkey)
  • The scheme will be capped at 2,500 workers per year
  • British labour providing companies which participate in the scheme will need to be licensed by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) which already licenses providers for several sectors, including agriculture

Overseas labour providers who provide workers to these British companies will also need to be licensed by the GLAA

Crucial aspects of the scheme have not been announced, such as:

  • How the GLAA will be able to monitor overseas labour providers who are providing workers to UK labour providers, and whether additional funding will be provided for this purpose
  • Whether or not workers will be allowed to change employers
  • Whether or not workers will be allowed to live outside employer-provided accommodation

The government is currently tendering for UK labour providers who wish to participate in the scheme. These operators will liaise with overseas recruiters to find migrant workers to come to the UK under the scheme.

Key Concerns

A previous scheme, called the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), was operational in the UK until 2013. Research into this and other temporary migrant worker programmes abroad has found that such schemes can lead to abuse and exploitation, including slavery.

Key factors which create conditions for exploitation under these programmes include tied visas, where the worker is tied to one specific employer and prohibited from changing employer whilst in the UK under this visa; employer dependency, where the worker is reliant on an employer for accommodation, transportation, food, information and/or other necessities; and debt bondage, where the worker’s wages go towards paying off costs of entering the scheme, such as visa charges and flight costs, alongside recruitment fees paid to labour brokers. All these factors can lead to workers having little choice but to accept abusive conditions or face destitution and/or deportation. Additionally, under-regulation of such schemes and lack of workers’ knowledge about their rights and access to justice can lead to unscrupulous employers purposefully exploiting migrant workers.

The SAWP must be designed to avoid these conditions which can enable and cause exploitation. Failure to do so would directly contradict the government’s stated aim to reduce and eliminate modern slavery and human trafficking.

FLEX calls on the government to:

  • Ensure safe standards: Provide additional funding to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to ensure it can inspect the SAWP properly and protect workers from slavery risks, including enabling it to regulate and monitor the activities of overseas labour providers to prevent debt bondage and other exploitative practices from thriving.
  • Prevent employer ownership of workers: Ensure workers are allowed to change employer under the visa terms, instead of tying them to a single employer.
  • Set fair wages and conditions: reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board in England and Wales (abolished in 2013) to ensure terms are jointly set by government, worker and employer representatives, in the interests of all.
  • Provide information and access to help: provide workers coming to the UK under the scheme with pre-departure information on their rights at work; establish a 24 hour hotline specifically for temporary migrant workers to report concerns or gain advice.

Commenting on the SAWP, FLEX Director, Caroline Robinson, says:

“The government has stated many times that it wishes to eradicate modern slavery, both nationally and on the world stage. Creating a temporary worker programme which facilitates exploitation would directly contradict this aim and be an embarrassment to this national priority. It is paramount that the new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme is designed intelligently to avoid worker abuse.

The government must ensure workers are not dependent on employers and are able to access information about their rights. More funding must be provided for the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority so that it can monitor the activities of overseas labour providers, thereby reducing the likelihood of debt bondage, and so that it can perform additional checks on working conditions under this scheme.

Instead of just forging ahead with an ill-thought through plan, the government should listen to the breadth of stakeholders and set wages and conditions through tripartite decision-making. Brexit Britain needs workers, but this must not be at the expense of having increased modern slavery on our shores.”

Our full briefing on SAWP and its risks can be found here.