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23 Jun 2023

UK: Migrant farmworkers supplying to major supermarket brands cite forced labour, recruitment debt, poor living conditions & penalties; incl. co comments

In March 2023, an investigation from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and VICO World News revealed widespread exploitation of migrant workers employed on UK farms through the Government's Seasonal Worker Visa scheme.

Allegations of human rights abuse include that migrant workers were subject to threats and harassment from management, paid recruitment fees in the form of airfares and took out loans to do so, were housed in precarious conditions, were unable to transfer workplaces and suffered punitive measures if they did not hit targets which meant shorter shifts and less pay.

Recruitment agencies Concordia, AG Recruitment and ProForce were implicated; AG Recruitment provided a response to journalists, Concordia and ProForce did not. The farms involved supplied to UK supermarkets including Tesco, Lidl, Waitrose and Co-Op. Tesco directed journalists towards a statement from the British Retail Consortium, Waitrose provided a statement in response and neither Co-Op nor Lidl responded to requests. Of the farms named in the report, Dearnsdale Fruit Farm, Gaskains and Medlar Fruit Farm commented. Tuesley Farm did not comment.

Following the report's publication, 19 civil society organisations and academics sent a letter to the Home Office, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, the Director of Labour Market Enforcement and the Migration Advisory Committee. The letter calls for a review of the Seasonal Worker Visa scheme in light of the allegations of abuse and exploitation in the UK's agriculture sector.

In a second part, the investigation published a report that Nepali workers at EU Plants and recruited by AG Recruitment had experienced wage deductions and intimidating behaviour from supervisors. Workers were paid so little they were unable to afford living expenses. EU Plants did not respond to journalists' request for comment.

In a third part, migrant workers at UK Salads (supplying to Spar and Aldi), Mains of Errol Farm (supplying to Sainsbury's), Homme Farm (supplying to Morrisons, Tesco and Aldi), and Edward Vinson's (supplying to Tesco, Co-Op and Lidl) reported squalid, cold, precarious and cramped accommodation provided by their employers. UK Salads, Mains of Errol, Spar and Co-Op provided comment to the news outlet. Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Tesco and Lidl provided a joint statement through the British Retail Consortium. Homme Farm and Edward Vinson's did not respond to the request.

In June, seasonal migrant workers told a House of Lords committee about the abuse they had experienced, while =Emiliano Mellino, the author of the original Bureau of Investigative Journalism story in March, also testified. These testimonies are part of a wider inquiry into the UK horticultural sector.