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‘Sham’ operators been charging extra to facilitate the recruitment of workers into the UK growing sector

Concerns are growing that the government’s seasonal worker visa is becoming increasingly vulnerable to abuse by criminals – leading to labour exploitation across the supply chain.

“There is infiltration into recruitment at various levels by third parties who are not involved [in the process] at all,” said David Camp, CEO of the Association of Labour Providers. “They have no connection to any recruiter, but they advertise as if they do, and they take money from individuals.”

Camp added that these third parties typically offered training courses and help with job application adminin for a fee. However, such services were “complete shams where they don’t do anything, they just take the money”, he claimed.

The scenario had been created in part by the expansion of the visa scheme into new countries, he explained, due to the impact of Brexit and the war in Ukraine – with further flung nations in Asia often having complex recruitment rules and systems that were difficult to interpret.

“We had been concerned there are risks of exploitation in the scheme generally but also, with the expansion of the scheme, [there had been] an increase in people being charged illegal recruitment fees,” added Kate Roberts, head of policy at research organisation Focus on Labour Exploitation.

She called for a “significant rehaul” of the system so that it could become “sustainable for workers” and could ensure decent working conditions.

Following the invasion of Ukraine – from where the UK had previously recruited the majority of seasonal labour last year – recruitment companies have had to rapidly expand into new markets in Asia.  

Majority of seasonal workers to be recruited from Asia due to Ukraine war

And “the UK’s labour enforcement agencies are not resourced to cover this significant expansion”, suggested Roberts, who added ensuring there were bilateral agreements in place with local labour enforcement agencies would help. 

“Previously, when the scheme was operating from fewer countries, it was more feasible for them to put agreements in place,” she said.

Camp and Roberts’ comments follow a recent investigation by The Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that found some workers were paying thousands of pounds extra to overseas agents to secure UK seasonal worker visas.

The investigation found as many as 150 Nepali workers who came to work at Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire may have also paid similar amounts to UK-licensed recruitment companies – meaning they were often paying double for the ritght to work under the visa scheme.

In light of concerns over exploitation, Fruitful Jobs – a government backed recruiter – recently published a statement on its website warning there had been “many cases of fraud” which had forced the company to inform users that it “does not work with or have any authorized representatives in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan”.  

The statement went on to say that, “any person who claims that is cooperating with us is acting illegally. Please do not pay any additional fees and contact us directly”.

Worker outreach

However, work was now being done to improve conditions for seasonal workers, Camp stressed.

Supermarkets, scheme operators, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the ALP (among others) have recently launched the Just Good Work app, which provides advice and guidance for workers in their native language in a bid to increase transparency in the recruitment and employment process. This collaboration had been described as essential for the improvement of the seasonal worker scheme by Camp.

Though the risk of exploitation was not new, as according to Roberts short term visas naturally had a higher risk of exploitation attached to it.

This was because workers had to invest in coming to the UK, even with legitimate costs of securing visas and flights, and when they get here “they only have a short period in which to make enough money to pay back their investment and earn the money they were counting on earning”.

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She added workers were dependent on earning the money they were expecting to earn so if the conditions weren’t what they hoped or expected “there is not necessarily any accessible redress during the six-month period”.

Workers do have access to UK employment law, but Roberts stated it was not “realistic” for them to be able to use it considering the financial pressures and time limitations they faced.

Camp also expressed concerns about “hidden exploitation” saying issues not only existed in recruitment but in on-farm conditions and the scheme rules.

He said the government needed to consider the scheme rules more closely as there needed more “clear communication and definition” around visa rules.

“There are lots of areas in the scheme rules [that need improvement] but unfortunately we don’t seem to be able to have a dialogue with the Home Office or Defra about these and we would really like to,” said Camp.

“I have made many offers to the Home Office and Defra for industry experts to work with them and give them input on how the scheme rules could be modified, but as yet we have been unsuccessful in achieving positive engagement from them. The door is always open, the invitation is always there and we would love to work with them.”