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31 Jan 2023

UK: Nepali & Indonesian migrant seasonal workers in the agricultural sector subject to exploitative working conditions, according to various reports

With the rapid expansion of the seasonal worker scheme in the United Kingdom - a reaction to shortages created by Brexit and Covid-19 - evidence of the exploitative working conditions faced by migrant workers in the agricultural sector is growing. The seasonal worker scheme allows employers in horticulture and poultry production sectors to source overseas workers to do seasonal work with an approved scheme operator. Since Brexit and the war in Ukraine, businesses, which in the past relied on temporary workers from Europe, started to look farther east to South Asian countries like Nepal and Indonesia.

The surge in arrivals from these countries sparked warnings from activists, who said workers from Asia were routinely charged excessive recruitment fees by job-finding agencies in their home country, putting them at high risk of debt bondage. Investigations by The Guardian in 2022 revealed that migrant fruit pickers were charged thousands in illegal fees by job-finding agencies to work on farms supplying major supermarkets such as M&S, Tesco & Waitrose. Due to the UK visa restrictions, workers are unlikely to raise grievances with their employers or the authorities, and according to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, the Home Office often fails to act promptly or seriously when workers do decide to raise concerns.

Following these reports, several recruitment companies announced they would stop recruiting Nepalese workers in 2023. The charity Focus on Labour Exploitation said that it was important that recruiters did not simply move from one country to the next “until there is a new scandal”, and called for "proper mapping of the supply chains and a careful process to work with the relevant authorities in each country the UK aims to bring workers from before operations start.

UK supermarkets have formed a task force to address the risk of worker exploitation in their supply chains.