Weed out exploitation: how to protect seasonal migrant workers labouring on British farms

By Olivia Vicol, Emma McClelland, Andrei Savitski - 28 February 2022

Imagine scrolling through Facebook one day. You come across an advert offering you a visa to the UK and bountiful seasonal work when you get there. You will, it assures you, earn plenty. You get in touch, pay your $300 fee to an intermediary, and book your flights. You think you'll make the money back. With a minimum guarantee of 35 hours' work per week, you can put in the effort and be rewarded for it. You're told there will be accommodation, for a modest fee, available at the farm. Your visa is tied to the recruiter, but maybe you'll make some friends. Maybe you'll get to know local people and learn about the culture. You have no idea how different things will be.

Migrants are lured into working in unsafe, precarious conditions on British farms every day. Drawing on the real-life stories of 26 seasonal agricultural workers who contacted our clinic last year, our new briefing documents their journeys, and what enforcement agencies need to do to better protect them.

Arriving at the farm

When you arrive in the UK, you're met at the airport and taken to the supermarket to get some provisions for the week ahead. You better plan this well, you're told. You're only allowed one shopping trip a week. Then, it's on to the farm. It's fairly isolated. Your thoughts about getting to know some British people may not come to fruition, it seems. But it's okay, because you'll be working in a team - something you enjoy.

Your caravan isn't what you expected. You're sharing it with five others and it's very cramped. There is not much room in the fridge for fresh food either. When you're next taken to get groceries, you'll need to get more canned goods. You test out the cooker and an alarm sounds. It's clearly unsafe. There is mould all around the caravan and the windows aren't sealed properly so there's a draft in your room. The shower and toilet facilities are a walk away and they aren't clean either. They appear to be flooded. 

Fighting for work

After an uncomfortable night's sleep, you emerge for work to be told the people in the caravans closest to the pickup point fulfilled the required number of workers for that day, so you won't be needed until tomorrow. You have no transport so you can't go anywhere. The hours pass slowly. The next day is the same. And the next. You ask a manager if you can be moved to another farm and are told you need to ask the agency, but you receive a general response, requesting that you fill out a complaint form. You never hear back.

That week, you don't get any of the 35 hours you were promised, but you remember that the contract said you'll be paid regardless. A manager tells you that you don't have to pay the caravan fees that week. In fact, you better not cause any trouble, if you want to come back next year. The energy bills are a different matter. You still have to chip in. Another worker tells you they once went for three weeks without work. You're starting to wonder if this was a good idea.

A culture of control

During the second week, your fortunes appear to change. Some of the other workers have complained about back pain. They won't be paid, as they've "refused work", but you count your blessings - at least it's your turn to work. You'll be picking apples, which would be okay except there doesn't appear to be much respect for health and safety. You perch atop a shaky ladder, plucking apples with your bare hands. PPE is not prevalent. The target you must meet is near impossible and your supervisors are vocal about the need for you to meet it. You ask for water. They bring some and hold it out, telling you to meet your targets before pouring it onto the ground in front of you. As they walk away, you hear them mutter an ethnically-targeted slur. 

Your payslip doesn't reflect the 35 hours' guaranteed payment. You're told to contact the agency if you have a problem, but how? On and on, work is a matter of feast or famine. If you're viewed as reluctant or problematic, you'll have work withheld in a way that seems personal. A supervisor reminds you that your visa is tied to the farm and can always be rescinded. You learn that people have fallen off ladders and been burnt with chemicals while working on the farm. One day your supervisor pulls you and two others to help with the renovation of his house, which doesn't seem right, but you do what you're told.

This is not a fictional story

All of the incidents in this story have been recalled to us by seasonal workers. Over the past year, we've supported 26 agricultural workers. They found us on social media or by word of mouth, and got in touch after emails to the agency went unanswered. Occasionally, after paying for utilities, they aren't even making the National Minimum Wage. They are isolated, hidden out of sight in caravans clustered away from the main roads, and cut off by lack of public transport. When work is available, it is often backbreaking and frequently unsafe. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), although agriculture covers 1% of the UK workforce, it accounts between 15% and 20% of worker deaths each year. Because reporting of accidents and cases of ill health in the industry is generally poor, the scale of everyday injury remains unknown (ibid).

Ultimately, the UK's reliance on cheap migrant labour fuels this system of exploitation. It is hard to see how things will change without a fundamental shift in our culture, our politics and our systems of engaging with this workforce. At the Work Rights Centre, we continue to do all that we can to support workers in all sectors and to report exploitation to the relevant authorities. To support us, please consider making a donation

To learn more about barriers to reporting and what enforcement agencies can do to address them, read our full briefing

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