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One of the key recommendations is to reduce the number of countries the scheme recruits from

Human rights experts have called on the government to simplify the Seasonal Worker scheme and make it more transparent to stamp out abuse within the supply chain.

In the latest in a series of House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee meetings on Friday, experts in the Seasonal Worker scheme put forward recommendations to reduce abuse within the supply chain. These included reducing the number of countries from where workers could be recruited. 

Since the UK left the EU, up to 80% of workers hired under the scheme have been from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but last year this shot up to more than 60 countries.

Caroline Robinson, a human rights consultant, said the UK should look at the Canadian scheme, which only recruits workers from 12 participating countries. This allows the government to oversee the process and establish clear worker protections through standardised contracts.

Robinson explained that this “narrowing” of countries to mostly South American and Caribbean nations improved worker welfare and provided them with greater opportunity. 

The additional challenge with a wider recruitment pool was the added travel cost for workers, with workers from Indonesia paying a minimum of £3,000 to come to the UK to work, said Kate Roberts, head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX).

“We are basically asking workers to carry quite a lot of financial risk to travel here without any certainty about their earnings in the UK,” she said.

“Our research has found there is quite a lot of confusion with workers around what the costs in the UK will be once they get here as well,” she added.

Interim findings of research from FLEX revealed that only 73% of workers reported having access to a working toilet. While only 39% felt safe in their accommodation, 28% of respondents did not know where to get help.

“Just having clarity within the scheme for workers of who is responsible, and what will happen if the unexpected happens, would do a huge amount to help,” said Roberts.

This was echoed by Robinson, who said: “Enforcement of standards has not been a major focus of our scheme.”

The government has suggested that the introduction of a single enforcement body but Roberts warned that the “devil is in the detail” and it would depend on what the body looked like, how it operated, and if it was properly resourced.

However, “having a simpler system with some clarity around responsibility and proactive enforcement would be a good thing,” she said.

More data is needed to be able to properly enact change within the supply chain. Adis Sehic, policy and research officer at Work Rights Centre and Robinson both called for more data to be made accessible so that groups could better understand the numbers of workers, where they were coming from, and their experiences.

“We can’t address this problem if we don’t understand the true scale of exploitation under the scheme and this is a factor that affects that,” said Sehic.

The 2020 and 2021 worker surveys and reviews of the scheme had still not been published said Robinson. She added that the detail within these reports would “make a huge difference”.