Head of Policy
Head of Policy
Over three years after the UK piloted the Seasonal Worker Scheme in 2019, risks of worker exploitation remain unaddressed as the scheme has been rapidly expanded from 2,481 visas in 2019 to up to 57,000 visas in 2023. FLEX has been raising concerns about the scheme since it was first announced in 2018 and provided evidence of risk of exploitation on the pilot in our report published 2 years ago. Concerns have also been raised by independent investigators, Government bodies, businesses and investors, with little action taken by Government to address them or enable workers on the scheme to access rights in practice.
The Seasonal Workers Visa is a short-term visa scheme which restricts visa holders to work in a specific sector for a maximum duration of six months for horticulture and 3 months for poultry and prohibits access to public funds. Workers on the visa can be recruited to the UK from potentially anywhere in the world by a Scheme Operator (sponsor) to work in the UK’s agricultural sector. As well as paying migration costs workers have also reported paying recruitment and other fees and arriving in the UK thousands of pounds in debt. There are no clear options for compensation for workers who have paid these fees which, although illegal in the UK, may not be illegal in the country workers were recruited from.
The US Recommended to the UK in the recent Universal Periodic Review that the UK “Take steps to ensure migrant workers are not left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from employers and the UK visa system”. As recently highlighted in the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) annual report and the Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration (ICIBI)’s inspection, serious issues exist in relation to independent scrutiny and enforcement within the scheme. The MAC report flagged the agriculture sector as a sector where there is ‘severe’ risk of non-compliance and of exploitation and cites issues which include risks of debt bondage due to migration costs and illegal recruitment fees, contracts often not being issued in workers’ languages, and penalties being imposed on workers for not meeting unrealistic work targets. The ICIBI inspection report highlights concerns around compliance, including for worker welfare, a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities, and disturbing concerns raised by stakeholders that even when reports were made by workers, compliance officers were not sure what happened to the information or if it was followed up at all. It is not always clear who is responsible for different elements of the scheme which sits under both DEFRA and the Home Office. Delivery of the scheme is through Scheme Operators who recruit and place workers and who are required to be licenced by both the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and the Home Office. The GLAA have confirmed that there are no regular or mandated checks on licence holders. Nor does the GLAA routinely inspect farms employing people with Seasonal Workers Scheme visas, as the workers are employed directly by the farms or growers.
Supermarkets have also raised concerns about risks of worker exploitation in response to evidence of seasonal workers paying extortionate recruitment fees and risking debt bondage to come and work on UK farms by taking out loans for migration costs which they might not be able to repay. This follows investors calling on retailers to address risks of exploitation and ensure workers are compensated.
In February 2023 the UK’s farming minister announced that from 1 April 2023, workers on the scheme would be guaranteed a minimum of 32 hours a week paid work at the National Living Wage. This is an important step forward and follows reports of worker being given very low numbers of hours of work, or being sent back to their caravans if they do not pick fast enough. While zero hours contracts are prohibited on the scheme, workers have reported being told there is no work available and dismissed only a few months into their six-month visa, before they have earned enough to repay the money they borrowed to migrate. Workers on the scheme can change jobs within the sector but can only work where they are placed by the same Scheme Operator who sponsors their visa. Rules around job transfers are unclear, stating that they should be arranged ‘where possible’. It is not explained what, if any, effective complaints mechanisms are in place if workers are denied a transfer, or left without work, or sufficient work. Workers who often incur high debt to migrate to the UK on the scheme need to know that they will be able to access decent work at expected pay for the duration of their visa and to be able to report issues and access compensation if things go wrong.
The restrictive nature of the visa, with no recourse to public funds, means it is unclear what, if any, options are open in practice to workers if they are exploited. The short duration of workers’ time in the UK, and lack of permission to work anywhere other than in the horticultural or poultry sector in jobs they are placed in by their scheme operator gives workers little incentive to challenge poor conditions of work for fear work will be withdrawn completely. For workers who have high migration costs to repay, this is not a risk worth taking.
Nor are the options for workers in the event of their scheme operator losing their licence clear. The general guidance states that the visas sponsored will normally be shortened to 60 calendar days. This could be devastating for workers who have recently arrived in the UK expecting to work for 6 months and who will be left with huge debt from migration costs which they are unable to repay. If workers understand this to be the likely outcome of scheme operators losing their licence this will further discourage them from speaking out about issues they experience on the scheme, The Home Office’s response to a recent written parliamentary question by Tony Lloyd MP asking what provision has been made for agricultural seasonal worker visa holders to remain working in the UK for the duration of their visa if the scheme operator who recruited them becomes unlicensed for any reason refers to ‘welfare’ being of ‘paramount importance’. It also states that ‘the Home Office will consider each case on its own merits and tailor our response accordingly’. Workers on the scheme need more certainty than this.
Risks of exploitation are high in short term work visas and short term initiatives of this type do not address the structural issues in the UK labour market. Nonetheless, as these visas continue to be expanded, it is vital that there is increased transparency around the implementation of the scheme and measures are put in place to mitigate against risks of labour exploitation. In addition to the harms caused to the individuals themselves, the creation of a two-tier workforce resulting from workers on some visas being unable to leave exploitative work or access compensation would also undermine decent employers and drive down labour standards, thereby increasing the challenges of recruitment.
In order to address the risks of exploitation posed by the Seasonal Worker Scheme, we recommend the following changes be made:
 Recently increased from 2.5 months (9 March 2023)