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Getting In the Weeds: The Government’s Response to the Shropshire Review

May 24, 2024
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Jacob Bolton

Research Officer

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has published their response (9 May 2024) to the Independent Review of Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain. Those of us who are interested in the Seasonal Worker Scheme – the UK’s labour migration route for essential farm work – have been awaiting this response since the release of the original report, known as the ‘Shropshire Review’, in June 2023. The headline policy revelation from the response is the extension of the Seasonal Worker Scheme for the next 5 years (to 2029) – by far the longest extension since the scheme began in 2019.

As we’ve said before, we welcome the existence of routes to come and work in the UK and earn a decent living. But as we have been arguing, the extension of the scheme must happen in tandem with an overhaul of the route that addresses the very real risks for exploitation, risks that have been pointed out since the scheme was piloted in 2019 and then time and time again.

On multiple occasions, DEFRA have declined to comment or answer questions concerning the Seasonal Worker Scheme, on the grounds that their position will be communicated in their upcoming response to the Shropshire Review. This was the case, for example, in their oral evidence to the Horticultural Committee, and also in their published response to the final Horticultural Committee report. It is unclear then, why this response leaves many of the recommendations and questions from the original report unaddressed and unanswered. This is something that we, along with other NGOs carrying out research and support work surrounding the route, have written in detail to the government about. 

In the new response, one omission is a discussion on extending the length of seasonal worker visas or the current absence of any option to apply to renew the visa, even if potential employment is ongoing. Visas are currently capped at 6 months, and workers who wish to return must first stay out of the UK for at least 6 months – known as the ‘cooling off period’. The Shropshire Review recommended  the visa to be  extended to 9 months. This is a position shared by many in the industry, including the British Berry Growers Association. 

There are compelling arguments for extending the visa beyond the current six-month-on, six-month-off, limiting structure. People are currently shelling out for flights, visa fees, and other expenses to come and work in the UK. In our research, the average (mean) total for recruitment-related expenses was £1231.[1] Seven in ten (72%) of workers from our study took out a loan to cover these costs. An alarming 3 in 10 workers were not confident that they would be able to pay back these costs throughout their time working in the UK.[2] Extending the visa could give people more potential earning time to recover these costs. That said, we have also identified in our research an issue of people being dismissed from farms early in their six month visa period. Restrictions on the visa mean that they have no access to employment outside of agriculture and no opportunity to receive unemployment-based welfare. That’s why we also call for the government to ensure a guaranteed income for workers who have travelled to the UK on the promise of work, and to ensure that compliance with the National Living Wage and the provision of a minimum of 32 paid hours a week needs to be independently monitored.

In their response, the government states that it is ‘investigating the use of the Employer Pays Principle (EPP) for the Seasonal Worker visa route’, which, if implemented, would ‘represent a significant step towards alleviating some of the financial burdens that workers can incur in paying for their visas and travel to the UK’. The way that they intend to do this is to commit funds to economic modelling, and to work on this proposal with the Seasonal Worker Taskforce (an industry-led taskforce). We welcome any serious consideration of the Employer Pays Principle, to avoid all the debt-related risks that we outlined above, while empahsising that during any time spent considering how visas and travel for workers to travel to the UK are funded, it is workers themselves who continue paying migration costs and shouldering the risks that this entails. However, it is crucial that decision making is informed by independent research, with input from all relevant government officials and stakeholders (e.g. IASC, ICIBI, etc.), including civil society organisations who hold important insights from workers on the scheme.

The response also pays lip service to the recurrent issue of inadequate complaints mechanisms on the route. The response states that “The government will work with sponsors and growers to explore a more effective routing of complaints, so that poor treatment, pay issues or working conditions can be reported and dealt with more effectively.” We have found deep-seated issues with existing complaints mechanisms, as they are currently set up. These issues include language barriers that prevented communication about concerns between workers and management, workers not knowing who to direct concerns or complaints to, and workers feeling intimidated by farm management or their scheme operator. We also found situations in which workers did not feel comfortable raising complaints, due to fear of losing their job. Proactive, regular inspections of farms employing workers on the seasonal worker visa scheme by labour market enforcement bodies are key to ensuring that labour standards are upheld. To be effective and secure the trust of workers these need to be clearly distinct from Immigration Enforcement or the Home Office and workers need to know that there are options for redress, including compensation.[3] It also needs to be the case that if a complaint leads to their sponsor’s licence being suspended or revoked, sponsored workers will not lose work or their visa. 

There is also the claim that “In addition, we will work with the sector to improve worker accommodation.” Again, we welcome that the government acknowledges that accommodation is an area that needs a lot of improvement. Our research has shown that just half of workers we surveyed found their accommodation clean and comfortable (52%). Only one in five workers surveyed said that they had enough privacy (20.6%). Multiple workers told us that their caravans were overcrowded, that they were “living like sardines in a can, like many people in the same room” (Andrei, Man, 34, from Romania).[4] However it is not clear from this response exactly what they will do to improve standards, what resources they have committed, who specifically they will work with, and how.

With the commitment that workers will be invited to travel to the UK every year between 2025-2029 to support our agricultural industry we need to remember there is an urgent duty to ensure these visas enable safe and fair working conditions. Workers using the scheme are already working in the UK. With other preparing to travel, leaving their families and communities with high hopes for work which will enable them to save and support their families, addressing the risks in the scheme is not a responsibility which can wait. 

[1] Workers we surveyed in this study reported paying between £0 – £5,500 in total to come to the UK to work before even earning a wage, with a median amount of £875 (± 962) and a mean of £1,231 (overall average). As shown by the large standard deviation, there was a lot of variance in the data. See Bearing fruit: Making recruitment fairer for migrant workers. Focus on Labour Exploitation, 2024. 

[2] See Bound to work: Improving access to redress on the UK’s Seasonal Worker Scheme. Focus on Labour Exploitation. 2024. 

[3] FLEX Policy briefing. What an effective Single Enforcement Body looks like. December 2023

[4] Name of worker changed. Interview conducted 13th May 2023.