13th Nov Guardian/Observer: UK seasonal fruit pickers from Nepal left thousands in debt after being sent home early from UK farms
Please do find the copied below link to another installment by The Guardian/The Observer on the forced labour risks in the UK government’s seasonal worker scheme, with the focus still firmly on Nepali and Indonesian workers recently migrating to the UK.
I also include the previous stories below at the bottom of the post for reference.
Immigration and asylum
Seasonal fruit pickers left thousands in debt after being sent home early from UK farms
Nepali workers who quit jobs and borrowed cash to come to UK are out of work just weeks after arriving
Apple picking in KentApple picking in Kent, 2020; the number of seasonal worker visas issued by the Home Office has soared. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images
Emiliano Mellino and Shanti Das
Sun 13 Nov 2022 07.00 GMT
Nepali workers hired to pick fruit on British farms say they have been left thousands of pounds in debt after being sent home only weeks after they arrived.
The fruit pickers were recruited under the government’s seasonal worker scheme and say they were offered work for six months. But less than two months after arriving, they were told they were no longer needed and instructed to book flights home.
Workers said they had quit jobs to come to the UK and have been left thousands of pounds in debt after borrowing money to cover their flights and fees to third-party job brokers. They also face steep airline charges to rearrange return journeys.
Some of the workers, who arrived in September, have already gone. Others who cannot afford tickets have been ordered to leave the farm where they were working in Kent – which has supplied supermarkets including Tesco, Co-op and M&S – or face being “blacklisted” from future jobs.
“If you ignore this email and we receive no answer … we will have to cancel your visas and to blacklist you, unfortunately,” one email sent to a group of workers by labour agency AG Recruitment on 4 November said.
One worker, Sajit, said he had sold his shop to come to the UK and still had more than £3,000 in debt to repay – about a year’s salary in Nepal. “They told us six months will be good money for us, but we get less money than we did in Nepal. If we go back, we don’t have any work,” he said. The Observer has spoken to 12 people who arrived to pick apples and other fruit in early September and have now been told they must return home early by AG Recruitment, one of the four official operators of the seasonal worker scheme for the horticulture sector. As many as 60 Nepali workers are understood to be affected. The early termination means many are now scrambling for other jobs to help repay the debts they accrued. Some say they have applied to restaurants and shops but been turned away because of their visa type. Others say they asked AG Recruitment to be sent to other farms but were told no placements were available. Strict visa rules prevent them from working in other sectors or on farms not connected with their original sponsor. Apples inthe fruit aisle at a Tesco supermarket Apples at Tesco; the supermarket says it is aware of ‘broader complexities’ in the supply chain. Photograph: Stephen Barnes/Food and Drink/Alamy With no way to work, they face returning home worse off than when they arrived. Manish, whose income supports his children and wife in Nepal, said he had taken on debts of almost £5,000 and still had to pay back more than half. He will probably start to accrue significant interest and fears the debt will take years to repay.
“I don’t think I’ll get my job back in Nepal … If I go back to Nepal in four or five years, I can clear the loan,” he said.
Even those workers who did not seek the services of recruitment agents paid about £1,500 each for plane tickets and visa fees before setting foot in the UK. One said that while he had just about managed to pay off his debts, he could not afford the airline charges, which could be as high as £200, to change his return flight, which had been booked for next year.
The findings will fuel concerns about the treatment of migrant workers under the UK’s seasonal worker scheme, which was launched to tackle labour shortages in food production and allows people to work on UK farms for a maximum of six months. Under the scheme, they cannot stay long-term, claim benefits or bring their families.
The number of seasonal work visas issued by the Home Office each year has surged since their launch in 2019, from 2,500 in the first year to an estimated 40,000 in 2022, including many from outside Europe. But the scheme has been blighted by claims of exploitation, with reports earlier this year alleging some workers from Nepal and Indonesia were being charged steep recruitment fees by third-party job brokers, placing them at risk of debt bondage.
Visas are offered for up to six months for migrant workers. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty
Migrant rights experts say better protections are needed for seasonal workers, including offering guaranteed hours and making it possible for them to seek other kinds of work when farm jobs are not available.
“It is not fair to expect them to pay out the financial costs of migrating without any real guarantees of work during the six months they are permitted to work in the UK,” said Kate Roberts, head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex). “There must be protection against these gaps in the scheme.”
The fees paid by the fruit pickers whose placements have just been terminated were largely in cash to job brokers based in Nepal, which are unrelated to AG Recruitment. Workers say they paid because the agents guaranteed them a visa and a place on the seasonal worker scheme.
AG Recruitment said it was unaware that workers had been charged. “We make it extremely clear both during our recruitment process and also in all our contracts that it is against the law for anyone to ask a worker to pay for work,” the company said.
It also said it had intended to provide six months of work but that the nature of seasonal work meant this could not be guaranteed, adding that workers were informed of this outright in Zoom discussions during the recruitment process.
Documents seen by the Observer show the workers were initially told they would be coming to the UK to work on a farm for six months. But about 10 days before they set out, they were informed that this placement had been cancelled and that they would now go to a different farm.
The workers, who had already bought flights and visas, were told the new placement would be for two months rather than six, but say they believed that, after it ended, they would be transferred to another farm. Emails from AG show they were assured there would be “a lot of work” and the chance to earn “good money”.
The workers subsequently travelled to the UK and began work at a farm run by Gaskains in Faversham, Kent. But when those shifts ended less than two months later, they were told by AG that there was nowhere else for them to go.
AG Recruitment said that while it had arranged four to six months of work for the fruit pickers before they arrived in the UK, “extreme circumstances” meant it could not transfer them to another agricultural employer as scheduled.
It said the reasons for this included the war in Ukraine delaying the issuing of visas and the hot summer which had negatively affected crops.
Workers questioned why they were recruited near the end of the season and say they would not have come had they known there would only be two months’ work.
“They must know the season is about to end. We didn’t realise that as [it was] the first time we were coming here,” said Kamal*, who is planning to sell off some family land to cover the debts he accrued to come to work in the UK. “Why did they hire us during the end of the season? It would have been better if they hadn’t hired us at all.”
Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, chief executive of the Work Rights Centre, said the early termination of the workers’ jobs would have left them in “complete shock”. “If they manage to buy new flights in time to avoid eviction, that wipes out most of what they earned. But if they can’t, they risk sleeping rough and working illegally on the black market, where they are completely vulnerable,” she said.
In a statement, AG Recruitment said it was conducting an internal review. It said it had provided welfare support to workers, adding that while they had been disappointed that further work was not available, they had been “happy with their earnings”. “We sincerely regret not being able to place all those who wanted to work, despite our best efforts,” Douglas Amesz, the company’s managing director, said.
Man and robot working on strawberry plants
Revealed: Indonesian workers on UK farm ‘at risk of debt bondage’
In relation to the blacklisting threat, the company said workers were required to “maintain communication with their sponsor as per immigration rules” and could be blacklisted from future work with AG if they did not. It added that it was not responsible for costs incurred by workers for changing their return tickets.
Gaskains, which supplies several UK supermarkets, said it was aware that further work had been planned for the fruit pickers and believed AG had “tried hard” to find some “when ongoing requests for staff were cancelled”. Charles Gaskain, the company’s director, said it was “a pity that such a changeable season … has so unusually created this situation”.
Tesco, which buys apples from Gaskains and has previously been linked to other farms that hire workers through AG Recruitment, said it was aware of “broader complexities” in the seasonal worker supply chain and was investigating. Co-op and M&S, which listed Gaskains in their 2022 supplier directories, said they had not received fruit from the farm during the affected period and that it was not a current supplier.
The Home Office said: “The seasonal workers route has been running for three years and each year improvements have been made to stop exploitation.”
- Names have been changed
Past/recent stories on challenges of UK seasonal worker scheme
- Review of UK seasonal worker visas to increase risk of slavery, experts warn
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/sep/29/review-of-uk-seasonal-worker-visas-to-increase-risk-of-slavery-experts-warn (29th Sept 2022)
- Indonesians wait on UK farm jobs after paying deposits of up to £2,500
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/sep/25/indonesians-wait-on-uk-farm-jobs-after-paying-deposits-of-up-to-2500 (25th Sept 2022)
- ‘Our fate is unclear’: Indonesian man who paid £1,000 deposit for UK farm job
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/sep/25/our-fate-is-unclear-indonesian-man-who-paid-1000-deposit-for-uk-farm-job (25th Sept 2022)
- Rapid expansion of visa scheme leaves seasonal workers at risk of exploitation
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/sep/25/rapid-expansion-of-visa-scheme-leaves-seasonal-workers-at-risk-of-exploitation (25th Sept 2022)
- Indonesia to investigate claims fruit pickers in UK seasonal agricultural workers scheme charged thousands to work in Kent
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/aug/29/indonesia-to-investigate-claims-fruit-pickers-charged-thousands-to-work-in-kent?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other (29th August 2022)
- Revealed: Indonesian workers on UK farm ‘at risk of debt bondage’
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/aug/14/uk-farm-workers-kent-debt-indonesian-brokers (14th August 2022)
- ‘My family need my support to eat’: how Indonesians came to work on a Kent farm
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/aug/14/how-indonesians-came-work-kent-farm-debt (14th August 2022)
- Why UK farms are recruiting fruit pickers from 7,000 miles away
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/aug/14/why-uk-farms-recruiting-fruit-pickers-from-7000-miles-away (14th August 2022)
- Why UK Migrant Fruit Pickers Charged Thousands in Fees to Work on UK Farms, Exclusive BIJ/Guardian Investigation Shows
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/may/27/migrant-fruit-pickers-charged-thousands-in-fees-to-work-on-uk-farms-investigation-shows (27th May 2022)
Migrant Worker Rights Specialist
+977 (0) 98234 86634 (Mobile/Whatsapp)