Source: Alamy

The Committee heard from Sybil Msezane, an ex-worker from South Africa, who said ’we weren’t viewed, from my experience, as humans’ 

Seasonal agriculture workers have outlined the “appalling” conditions facing many people within the fruit & veg sector, in the latest evidence session of a House of Lords probe.

Peers on a Lords Horticultural Sector Committee’s inquiry into the experiences of seasonal workers yesterday heard a litany of complaints from three former seasonal workers over the conditions and treatment they had faced on British farms.

Sybil Msezane, one ex-worker from South Africa, said: “We weren’t viewed, from my experience, as humans. We were more chattel on the farms.”

She added that at a number of farms she was referred to as a number and described the experience of working as akin to “slave labour”.

Meanwhile both Andrey Okhrimenko and Vadim Sardov, both former workers from Kazakhstan, said they had received threats from managers that they were easily replaceable and their visas could be removed if they didn’t perform properly.

“If you don’t work fast enough, if you don’t comply with quality… they will say ’we will cancel your visa, we can send you back home to your country’”, Okhrimenko said

It “would happen every single day during the meetings before work or during breaks”, he added.

As well as the threats former workers faced, they also complained of “extremely bad living conditions”.

Sardov said workers were not asking for “five-star hotels” but “employers must provide proper living and working conditions”.

He told the committee he was housed in a “cold caravan” without central heating. Workers had to pay for electrical heaters, he added. The caravan was “full of cracks and holes” and Sardov was “afraid almost every night that when I fall asleep I might not wake up”.

Msezane said she had to pay rent to live in a caravan with six people of different nationalities, both men and women, who had a single shower and fridge between them.

Seasonal workers are at risk of abuse. Regulation needs to catch up

Okhrimenko said many workers were “afraid” to raise issues with conditions due to the risk of losing employment.

Even when complaints were raised, Emiliano Mellino, an investigative journalist who also spoke on the panel, said they were often not acted on by the scheme operators who had a “clear conflict of interest” in keeping the farms that were paying them happy.

Msezane added that her cousin had been sexually harassed while on farm but nothing was done due to the accused being a returning worker who was well known by farm management.

“A lot of people ended up getting exploited because they didn’t have the knowledge base and they didn’t know how to exercise their rights,” said Msezane.

“It was difficult if you didn’t know how to access information because information wasn’t readily given to you by the employer,” she added. “In most of the farms, you didn’t even know who the HR manager was so you had to be looking for that information if you needed it.”

This lack of information began for workers before arrival in the UK said Mellino, who described it as an “information void” – there is no website listing all scheme operators, subcontractors or countries from which the UK is recruiting.

“It opens up a space for exploitative people to take advantage of people who are trying to come to the UK and don’t know how,” said Mellino.

“Facebook and TikTok become the avenues where people learn about the scheme and the information can be patchy and at times it can lead to exploitation,” he added.

In an earlier session, former G’s Fresh Group boss and independent labour review lead, John Shropshire, called for a “major major sort-out” of the government’s Seasonal Worker scheme and criticised Whitehall’s recent handling of seasonal labour issues.

“When we have got a scheme with some longevity, we need to have some regulations because this is actually a lot of small companies employing these people who don’t have an HR team or an HR officer,” said Shropshire.

“There has got to be regulation and there has got to be then enforcement,” he added.

Can seasonal workers be protected from abuse?