‘The Seasonal Worker visa scheme must be reformed to end systemic exploitation’: Work Rights Centre responds to reports of widespread migrant worker exploitation on British farms

By Evie Breese - 23 October 2023

An investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and The Independent has revealed the Home Office failed to act on its own reports of widespread exploitation, wage theft and racism affecting seasonal workers on British Farms. This underlines our view that the seasonal workers visa scheme (SWS) is not fit for purpose, and must be reformed if the Home Office stands in opposition to exploitation.

The dire treatment of migrant Chilean worker Julia Quecaño Casimiro and others at a farm in Herefordshire, who reportedly received far fewer shifts and less pay than they were promised, is far from anecdotal. The Work Rights Centre has assisted 69 individuals with status under the SWS, with almost half saying they were underpaid or offered fewer hours than agreed. In many cases, the individuals who approached us were part of larger groups of workers who encountered the same issues.

A Nepalese SWS worker approached us saying they had been offered just two months of employment, then told that no further work was available. They were asked to vacate their caravan on-site and rebook a costly flight to return to their home country earlier than agreed. The client alleged they were one of approximately 180 SWS workers in the same position.

Responding to the TBIJ investigation, Work Right Centre CEO Dr. Dora-Olivia Vicol said:

“Without migrant workers, the British farming industry would be nonexistent. And yet every week more reports of migrant exploitation come to light. This latest investigation from  TBIJ shows that the Home Office is simply unable to protect the welfare of migrant workers. 

“On receiving these highly concerning reports of exploitation from their own investigators, the Home Office should have enabled victims to transfer to other farms. But because under the SWS transfers are only an option, not a guarantee, workers are effectively forced to accept whatever their visa  operator offers. If the operator says ‘there is no other work for you here’, they can only endure what they are given, or return to their home countries indebted and dismayed.

“Employer-sponsored visas by design are going to lead to abuses of power because workers are tied to their sponsors. To end exploitation, we need a system where migrants on work visas are free to leave abusive workplaces, and take their labour to the businesses that value them. We are calling for reform of the points based system to end employer-sponsorship.”

Case studies may be available on request. Contact communications officer Evie Breese to discuss (evie.breese@workrightscentre.org)

The Work Rights Centre is calling on the government to:

  1. Reform of the Points Based System to end workers’ dependency on sponsors, and make it easier to change employers without risk of losing their right to be in the UK.
  2. Give all migrant workers access to public funds, to empower them to leave exploitative jobs without the fear of falling into debt or becoming destitute. 
  3. Establish a Single Enforcement Body for labour rights - to simplify the reporting of labour exploitation, and widen access to employment justice.
  4. Implement a Migrant Worker Welfare Strategy to create a framework for accountability, add precious new direction to intelligence gathering, investigation and resourcing for labour market enforcement; as well as create and promote avenues for redress. 
  5. Institute an independent Migrant Commissioner to be a champion of migrant workers’ rights that advocates for systemic change.

In mid-November we will publish a new report on the systemic drivers of migrant worker exploitation in the UK. Contact Evie Breese (evie.breese@workrightscentre.org) to register your interest in receiving a copy on publication. 

Notes to editors.

This report references a joint investigation from TBIJ and the Independent, published on 23/10/2023 that found:

  • “Farm inspection reports produced by the Home Office between 2021 and 2022 found nearly half (44%) of the 845 workers interviewed as part of the inspections raised welfare issues including racism, wage theft and threats of being sent back home. 
  • “On most of the inspected farms, there were allegations of mistreatment or discrimination and more than 80% of workers interviewed on the three most complained about farms raised an issue of some sort.
  • “In nearly two thirds (12 out of 19) of farms inspected in 2021 and 2022, workers said they were not always paid for the hours they worked, were off sick or travelled, or they faced deductions beyond the maximum allowed by law.
  • “None of the allegations raised during these inspections was investigated by the Home Office or visa scheme operators, according to a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration.
  • “Despite the numerous issues raised with the inspectors, no government-licensed scheme operator has lost its licence or been sanctioned for failing to meet these standards. Some have, however, been penalised when workers stayed in the UK beyond the end of their visas.
  • “The government rapidly expanded the seasonal worker visa scheme from 2,500 workers in 2019 to as many as 55,000 this year.”

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