When it comes to seasonal workers, the main concern is usually whether the UK has enough. Now a new issue has arisen: there are mounting fears the current system is leading to more abuse than ever before, putting workers at dangerously high levels of risk.

The Seasonal Worker Visa Scheme has been under increasing pressure over the past few years, as it has been forced to adapt to new sources of labour. Since Brexit and the gradual decline in EU workers, recruiters have been looking further east for labour. Initially, a greater number were recruited from eastern Europe. Then the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed recruiters into Asia.

As the net has been cast wider, the supply chain has become longer and more vulnerable to abuse. The results are now starting to hit home.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Vice UK reported this week there had been widespread mistreatment of workers on the scheme at more than 20 UK farms, nurseries and packhouses in 2022. These workers were facing “systemic bullying, abuse and growing debt”.

“Our findings expose a poorly enforced government visa scheme that is flagrantly breached by farms and recruiters, and which leaves people vulnerable to exploitation,” wrote journalists Emiliano Mellino and Rudra Pangeni.

This follows several reports of workers from countries such as Nepal and Indonesia paying thousands of pounds in fees to agencies in their home countries, then struggling to pay off their debts once in the UK.

Even the chair of the government’s independent review into labour shortages in the food supply chain, John Shropshire, said last week any seasonal worker scheme would have to go hand in hand with regulation. The clear implication being that regulation is currently lacking.

“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, who is also executive chair of G’s Fresh.

G’s, one of the major fruit & vegetable suppliers in the UK, can audit the whole trail back to the start of the labour supply chain, he says. But Shropshire acknowledged “there are not many companies like us who can do that”.

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

This is not the first time these views have been aired. Last year, David Camp, CEO of the Association of Labour Providers, told The Grocer there had been “infiltration into recruitment at various levels by third parties”. He urged the government to look into the scheme rules to improve “communication and definition”.

At the same time, Kate Roberts, head of policy at research organisation Focus on Labour Exploitation, called for a “significant rehaul” of the system to make it more “sustainable for workers”.

That rehaul is underway, to some extent.  Since these complaints were voiced, the government has commissioned the review led by Shropshire. It has also stripped one of the six recruiters, AG Recruitment, of its licence due to rumoured abuses.

However, other than the removal of AG Recruitment from the scheme, there has been little immediate action from the government. This has forced parts of the supply chain to take matters into their own hands. Aldi, Tesco and Sainsbury’s announced funds into tighter audits of their supply chains earlier this month, for example. 

Better regulation within the food supply chain is becoming increasingly high priority, and no doubt will be featured in Shropshire’s upcoming review.

The ultimate goal is to have a robust scheme for seasonal workers that is stable and reliable. That’s something growers and workers don’t yet have.