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Press Release: New research highlights improvements needed to protect migrants from debt and disappointment on UK’s Seasonal Worker Scheme

April 2024

Tuesday 2 April 2024

New research into the UK’s Seasonal Worker Scheme (SWS) confirms existing fears that many migrant workers are taking on loans and debt in order to work in the UK. It also shows that many workers face deception and disappointment, such as finding working hours or earnings differ from their expectations and promises made to them before arrival.

According to the research sample, 72% of the workers on the scheme took out a loan to cover the costs of coming to the UK to work. 76.6% of the workers surveyed reported earning less than they had been told they would earn.

The study, conducted by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) in collaboration with Rosmini Centre Wisbech, Citizen Advice South Lincolnshire, and the South-East and East Asian Centre (SEEAC), is thought to be the largest independent research published to date on the UK’s Seasonal Worker Scheme.

The publication is based on a sample of interviews and surveys with more than 400 workers and 15 key stakeholders collected over 17 months. It is the first in a planned series of reports by FLEX which focuses on identifying the systemic factors present in the design of the SWS visa route that can increase risk of labour exploitation for workers. 

The first report, ‘Bearing fruit: Making recruitment fairer for migrant workers (2024)’ focuses specifically on the risks related to the recruitment process for workers joining the SWS, as well as highlighting examples of good practice.

Oliver Fisher, Research Manager at FLEX said:

“The findings of this research indicate that a large number of people on the scheme are being subjected to preventable risks, including risks of deception. We know where the risk areas are on the visa route and the research backs up what we have been saying to government for years.

Many of the stakeholders we spoke to also share these concerns. They also highlighted areas of good practice which protect workers. These practices and standards need to be enforced across the scheme and its actors, the gaps in data need to be addressed and workers need to have access to their rights in practice if we are to prevent exploitation.”

The combination of workers having to take on high migration costs, the insecurity caused by the short-term nature of the visa and workers having no guaranteed income for the duration of their visa, creates a risk of debt bondage for workers. It can also exacerbate the already significant power discrepancy between workers and their employers and scheme operators, making it difficult for workers to raise concerns about their work due to the risk of losing employment and therefore not being able to pay back loans.

One worker interviewed described these issues in her own words:

“I can tell you that a lot of people in Kazakhstan have sold their belongings or their assets just to have enough money to come here. Hoping that it would be better here and can earn more money. Can you imagine? Sold everything they owned! There are some people who leave their jobs to come here, because they are told that it would be better here. They see it on Tik Tok, Telegram or Instagram videos and everything looks perfect and beautiful. But once they arrive here, it’s completely different. It is just a misleading image.”

Amina*, Woman, 32, from Kazakhstan. 

Many workers also reported mismatches in information concerning how much they would be earning, the total costs they had to pay, and their hours of work. Some workers reported expecting to be paid by the hour but on arrival being told they must meet specific productivity or picking targets, known as a ‘piece rate’.

As one worker described:

“Before we arrived here no one mentioned any targets, they told us it will be paid by the hour, as soon as we start working, they told us that there is [a] target.”

Rasul*, Man, 28, from Kazakhstan. 

Many workers also reported receiving contracts in a language they did not understand. These combined factors make it difficult for workers to make an informed decision about coming to the UK, putting them at risk of deception about the nature of work. This may have limited workers’ ability to accurately calculate if they would earn enough money to cover costs.

While practices vary across operators, to reduce these risks, scheme operators interviewed highlighted several ways in which they try to set expectations on the nature of work in the UK with workers, including through the use of in-depth information sessions provided to workers before they come to the UK.

Many of the issues mentioned above, including high levels of debt and language barriers, can be linked to the rapid expansion of the visa route combined with the fact that there is at present little oversight of overseas recruitment practices on the SWS.


Names have been changed to protect the identity of workers.

Notes to Editors

The executive summary and full report is available to read and download here.

For further information please contact Poppy Reid at [email protected]

About the Seasonal Worker Scheme

The Seasonal Worker Scheme, a visa route for migrant workers to work in the UK’s horticultural and poultry sector has existed in various forms in the UK since 2019 but has seen rapid expansion in recent years. In 2019 the maximum number of visa allocation on the route was 2,500 workers which had risen to 45,000 visa places for horticulture and a further 2,000 for poultry production by 2023.

About the research

This research conducted by FLEX in collaboration with Rosmini Centre Wisbech, Citizen Advice South Lincolnshire, and the South-East and East Asian Centre (SEEAC) is based on more than 400 surveys and interviews with migrant workers and 15 key stakeholders including scheme operators, retailers, one international organisation, one trade association and staff from frontline support organisations.

FLEX also contacted more than 40 growers and several Government departments relevant to the scheme including the Home Office, DEFRA, the HSE and the GLAA, with all declining a request to be interviewed for the study.

Two further reports using the same data set are due to be published by FLEX in Spring 2024 investigating living and working conditions and the ability of workers to transfer to other employers or farms.

Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) is a UK charity working to end labour exploitation by challenging and transforming the systems and structures that make workers vulnerable to abuse. FLEX conducts research, advocacy work, coalition and capacity building, and strategic communications.