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The report by Focus on Labour Exploitation has documented the ways workers can be stuck in poor employment, with requests to transfer to a different farm often ignored or denied

The government’s Seasonal Worker scheme is leaving labourers trapped in cycles of debt, new research has found.

A report, titled Bound to Work: Improving access to redress on the UK’s Seasonal Worker Scheme, by Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex), documented the ways workers can be stuck in poor employment, with requests to transfer to a different farm often ignored or denied.

Flex said there was a recurrent issue of people travelling to the UK only to find there was not enough work for them to make the money they had expected, or in some cases to pay migration costs.

The report added that late payments or underpayments – combined with mounting debts, a fear of complaining, and a lack of reliable ways to change jobs – could lead to workers becoming coerced into accepting poor or unsustainably intensive living and working conditions.

According to the survey of 400 workers, 70% borrowed money to pay for their visa costs and flights to come and work in the UK.

However, only seven in 10 believed they would be able to pay it back based on how much they were earning.

Flex added many farms paid workers based on how much they picked, but only a third of workers always understood how targets were calculated and more than half were not paid for everything they picked.

The study also found that three-quarters of surveyed workers reported earning less than they were told they would be able to earn by coming to the UK.

“It is not acceptable that people are selling their belongings and taking out loans to pay for a trip to the UK, only to arrive here and have their contract cancelled after weeks or a few months: to protect workers from destitution and exploitation, we call for a guaranteed baseline income for the full six-month duration of the visa,” said Oliver Fisher, research manager at Flex.

“These are just some of our recommendations.”

Incidents of denying shifts and requests for transfer

The research also uncovered incidents of supervisors denying people shifts as punishments and occurrences of requests for transfer to another farm being ignored or denied, despite rules allowing transfer.

“It’s pointless,” said one worker in July last year. “Our scheme operator, [redacted], they don’t do any transfers at all. We also tried to get transferred last year and we were told to book a flight and to go back home if we didn’t like it here. That’s what we were told. Imagine!”

Fisher said Flex had outlined concerns with the scheme three years ago about how it left workers exposed to risks of exploitation, “and after a larger study, we can conclude that these risks – which are entirely preventable – very much persist”.

He said the government needed to establish secure reporting mechanisms to enable workers to safely report issues without facing deportation.

“More transparency around hours and wages that workers are receiving will help industry understand how the scheme is working and where improvement is needed,” he added.

Read more: Seasonal worker returns higher despite human rights concerns

It comes following news from one scheme operator, Fruitful Jobs, that numbers of returnees are higher than normal, up to 65%-75% across the scheme, with some farmers welcoming as many as 95% of workers back for the second year.

James Mallick, director of Fruitful Jobs, said concerns around the operation of the scheme often came from non-representative and “biased” surveys, when, in fact, it was a very “small proportion of the sector that is not having a good experience”.

“Unfortunately, I think what we’re seeing is that small percentage being used as a sledgehammer to say that the industry is rotten and it’s absolutely not,” he added, pointing to more recent Defra surveys that showed mostly positive feedback.