seasonal worker farmer tray of strawberries field - getty images

In a ‘disturbing’ update, more scheme returnees are saying they are ‘never coming again’ because ‘it is the worst it’s ever been’

Structural failings within the seasonal worker supply chain have led to many workers refusing to return to the UK scheme next year.

In a “disturbing” update, more scheme returnees are saying they are “never coming again” because “it’s the worst it’s ever been”, said Caroline Robinson, project advisor for Worker Support Centre Scotland, a non-profit which supports seasonal workers in Scotland with advice and information.

There was a “relatively significant number of workers” coming to the centre, saying while this is not their first time on the scheme it will be their last as “they’ve had such a bad experience”, she added.

The reasons most of them gave related to pay and how long they could work for when they were in the UK, “which is kind of key to the visa [as] if you can’t work for the full six months, it is really not very much that you can make, especially if workers are coming from really far away and paying quite a lot of money to do so”, said Robinson.

“I think that’s really a failure of the kind of inspection and oversight of the scheme,” she said, adding there needed to be “much more of an urgent response when there are issues to deal with”.

So far, Worker Support Centre has processed around 70 cases from workers in Scotland this year, with much of the season still to go. Last year, it processed over 110 complaints over the entire season.

However, many workers don’t complain at all and fears have continued for workers that “if they complain, they won’t get any meaningful redress but they might lose work, even if that’s just the time they will lose in a transfer”, said Kate Roberts, head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation.

The government recently introduced a minimum 32 hours of work per week guaranteed to workers to provide some security. However, it has had mixed success as, despite this, many are still unable to earn enough to pay off debt accrued in their home countries.

“We are still hearing reports of workers not getting enough work – either delays in work starting or gaps between work – and workers being very, very concerned about making enough money even just to cover their costs,” said Roberts.

“It does seem unclear to me, why, given there is a demand for labour and we’re asking workers to come to the UK, we can’t offer them a guaranteed income and the guaranteed work,” she added.

“The workers are still taking the risk here.”

Roberts argued that structural changes were required, with more independent and proactive monitoring and enforcement. 

“I think the problem at the moment with this scheme is that it isn’t working very well for anyone,” she added. “So ultimately, it does need to be changed.”

This, in her view, comes down to having a less restrictive visa as workers are currently “very dependent on the scheme operator to provide them with work and accommodation because they have no recourse to public funds”.

In May, Robinson spoke to the House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee and recommended a simplification of the seasonal worker scheme as a way to eliminate abuse within the supply chain. This followed reports of human rights issues within the scheme over the last season with former seasonal workers telling the same committee that conditions were “appaling” and workers were not treated as humans.