Britain’s seasonal worker scheme leaves many migrants in debt, research finds

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Most migrants working on UK farms take out big loans to cover their upfront costs, without knowing whether they will earn enough to pay off their debts, according to research published on Tuesday.

Almost three-quarters of workers recruited through the Seasonal Worker Scheme, which allows UK growers to hire around 45,000 people a year on six-month visas, borrowed an average of more than £1,200 to come to the country and most had little certainty over how much they would earn once they arrived, the research organisation Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex) found.  

The findings will add to existing concerns that the design of the UK’s visa scheme — a lifeline for a sector that has struggled to recruit since Brexit — is leaving workers at risk of debt bondage and exploitation, unable to quit jobs even if they find the work and living conditions worse than promised.

They come on the back of a damning report by the UK’s borders and immigration watchdog on the UK’s visa scheme for care workers, described as leaving migrants vulnerable to “shocking” exploitation.

Lucila Granada, Flex’s chief executive, said it was “disappointing” that farm workers were still being put at risk when concerns had been flagged as early as 2021.

She acknowledged that the operators charged with bringing workers to the UK have made concerted efforts to improve the information available to potential recruits, and to stamp out illegal practices by local middlemen, while food retailers were also keen to address labour abuses in their supply chains.  

But there were still instances of workers paying illegal fees to brokers who arranged their job, on top of the lawful costs of Home Office visa fees, air fares and expenses for the weeks before the first pay cheque.

More than half of nearly 500 workers surveyed or interviewed by Flex said that before arriving in the UK they did not have accurate information on how many hours they would work or how much they would earn.

Meanwhile contracts shown to workers before they set out were not always translated into the relevant language and did not always match those they were asked to sign after arrival, with many people finding they could not earn as much as expected, leaving them struggling to clear their debts.

“We want to see that this isn’t a lottery for workers — with safeguards embedded in the structure of the scheme,” Granada said.  

Flex argued that workers on the scheme should not be expected to bear the financial risks of coming to the UK and added that it should operate on an “employer pays” principle.

The organisation also wants the government to consider listing the countries recruits can come from, because people who relied on working in the UK for several seasons had been affected when some routes suddenly closed.

A task force set up by supermarkets seeking to eliminate worker exploitation in their supply chains is exploring similar ideas, including moving the seasonal worker scheme on to an ‘employer pays’ principle.

Sophie de Salis, sustainability policy adviser at industry body the British Retail Consortium, said retailers had been working with the rest of the industry and government since 2022 to improve workers’ experience and were funding a feasibility study this year to explore how the scheme could move to an “employer pays” principle.

But she added that the government needed to address “systemic issues driving illegal recruitment fees”, including by recruiting from a set list of countries and setting a five-year rolling quota for recruitment.

The Home Office said the department was “clamping down on poor working conditions and exploitation” and had made improvements to the scheme in each of the four years it had been running.

“We will always take decisive action where we believe abusive practices are taking place or the conditions of the route are not met,” they added.

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