UK Seasonal Worker scheme endangers vulnerable foreign workers
Launched in 2019, the Seasonal Worker scheme (SWS) introduced a temporary migration channel for foreign workers into the UK that has been essential for the country’s food security. The scheme allows a few government-licensed "scheme operators" (or sponsors) to recruit a limited numbers of foreign workers from any country to work in the UK, mostly in the agriculture sector, for a maximum of six months. From 2019 to 2022, the number of SWS workers grew from 2,000 to 30,000, with most originating from Ukraine. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more Indonesian and Nepali workers, alongside others from Central Asian and Eastern Europe, have been recruited.
Many Indonesian and Nepali workers paid recruitment costs of more than £5,000 to access the SWS in 2021 and 2022. Worker’s recruitment debt was compounded if they couldn’t work for a full six months in the UK before being forced to return home, in debt and without savings.
Unlike most migrant worker visa schemes globally, the UK does not negotiate or agree standards governing the recruitment of workers into the SWS and there is no framework to ensure recruitment is legal in the origin country, or that risks to worker welfare are managed. Many Indonesian and Nepali workers paid recruitment costs of more than £5,000 to access the SWS in 2021 and 2022. Workers' recruitment debt was compounded if they couldn’t work for a full six months in the UK before being forced to return home, in debt and without savings. Due to an ability to pay off recruitment debt, some SWS workers abscond into the informal economy whilst others claim asylum to lengthen the time they can stay to work in the UK.
FLEX, a research and policy organisation working towards an end to labour exploitation, has also highlighted other challenges for workers within the SWS, including those related to lack of recourse to public funds, poor and costly accommodation, high piece rate targets and an inability to change farms or access guaranteed working hours. In 2022, a former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner expressed concern at the increasing risks of modern slavery associated with the SWS. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration report also outlined how compliance with the rule of law and respect for human rights under the SWS were often neglected.
As recruitment for the 2023 SWS season begins, questions remain over whether the government, supermarkets, farms and scheme operators are committed to promoting responsible recruitment and preventing a repeat of past abuses against vulnerable workers. The Government recently announced a guarantee of 32 hours of paid work for workers per week for the 2023 SWS season, for which a quota of 40, 000 visas has been set. However, rules concerning this commitment are unclear, with no clear guarantee of six months’ work.
Under the SWS, workers are expected to cover all migration costs, including flights and visas. Only agency recruitment fees are covered by farms. These expenses are often high and result in debt bondage, as workers are migrating from countries where exploitation is common. Not only is this approach out of sync with government commitments to prevent modern slavery and encourage responsible recruitment. But the SWS scheme is also in conflict with the Employer Pays Principle (EPP), a commitment, endorsed by several supermarkets, that migration costs should be borne by employers and no worker should pay to access work.
Instead of finding sustainable solutions to past challenges and abuses reported, in 2023 SWS operators have disengaged from recruiting in Nepal. Indonesian recruitment has also been halted after the scheme operator recruiting from the country lost its license. New operators are exploring hiring from Bangladesh, raising the potential for recruitment abuses to simply reoccur in a country with some of the highest recruitment costs globally.
The continuing irresponsible recruitment practices of SWS operators suggest lessons of the past have not been learnt. Government and supermarkets have minimal oversight over these practices, and examples of best practice or attempts to audit the operators remain limited.
In March 2023, UK supermarkets, including Aldi, Tesco and Sainsbury’s began ramping up scrutiny of recruitment agencies and funding tighter audits in response to the allegations of worker exploitation. Yet there are few practical initiatives promising to reduce the risk of irresponsible recruitment into the SWS and no clear commitment from the government to address these challenges. Not only have the government, farmers, operators and retailers done little so far to improve recruitment and worker welfare protections in the SWS for future years, they have also not collectively committed to remedy the serious abuses workers have already suffered.
Given debts workers continue to incur during recruitment into the SWS, risks and contingencies of employers and farms shouldn’t fall unfairly on workers. All workers should be guaranteed at least six months of work and the ability to recoup their recruitment costs. Indebted workers who returned to countries like Indonesia and Nepal with spiralling recruitment debts in 2022, and cannot return to the UK in 2023, should also be remediated. Consumers and investors also have important leverage to insist the costs of responsible recruitment are equitably shared, primarily by farmers and supermarkets, not by workers.
The government should be more careful in its selection of SWS operators, who ultimately manage recruitment for the scheme and should be chosen based on capacity and reliability. These licensed actors should be supported by the government and supermarkets to responsibly recruit, with pilot projects implemented and evaluated to establish best practices.
Vulnerable workers from the poorest communities on our planet should not have to bear the real costs of our food system’s reliance on foreign workers to meet its demand. Decent work and responsible recruitment principles should not be set aside by a need to address labour shortages quickly, cheaply, and flexibly.
By Andy Hall, international migrant worker rights specialist.