There are mounting concerns the UK’s scheme gives rise to abuse
Despite claims from home secretary Suella Braverman this week that Britain can pick its own fruit simply by training people, the industry is less than reassured. Instead, it points to the labour shortage that saw at least £60m worth of fruit wasted last year as its case for quite the opposite: a robust seasonal worker scheme in fresh produce.
At least the government has bolstered the quota early for 2024, announcing its continuation with 45,000 workers. But there are mounting concerns it is an incubator for abuse.
In 2021, up to 80% of workers hired under the scheme were from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but last year it hired from more than 60 countries, creating an unwieldy supply chain exposed to exploitation.
So, with this year’s seasonal workers beginning to arrive, what are the threats they face? And what can be done?
Speaking at a recent House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee meeting, experts made a powerful case for streamlining the number of countries eligible, in order to improve oversight.
Canada’s scheme recruits workers from 12 countries, and this “narrowing” allows its government to better oversee the process and establish clear protections through standardised contracts, says human rights consultant Caroline Robinson.
Workers can be exposed to abuse through low pay and debt, and it is argued streamlining would reduce the scope for illegal third parties to con applicants into paying hefty charges beyond the official application fee. Some workers accrue over £3,000 of debt, says Kate Roberts, head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex).
“There is a need for labour but the work is not reliable so there are several factors which are coming together to create this risk,” Roberts adds.
Uncertainty around work levels led to contracts being terminated before the end of workers’ visas last year, leaving some unemployed, says Robinson.
The burden of debt for workers could be lessened through “spreading those costs” through the supply chain, says Roberts, and “ensuring there is enough flexibility that workers can go where there is work”.
Adis Sehic, policy and research officer at Work Rights Centre, suggests reducing the official application fee from £259 to something more in line with the processing cost of £129, removing the hefty 100% profit.
Conditions on the ground for workers are also a concern, since “enforcement of standards has not been a major focus of our scheme”, says Robinson.
Interim findings from Flex suggested only 73% of workers had access to a working toilet, only 39% felt safe in their accommodation and 28% 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,” says Roberts.
A further lesson could be taken from the Canadian scheme in the adoption of temporary permits, used to help workers leave abusive sites, says Robinson. The short-term visa allows workers to move quickly, thereby offering them some protection and stability.
The government’s proposed solution, of a dedicated enforcement body, is also much needed, says Roberts, since currently “it is very unclear” with which body responsibilities lie.
Not only that, but thanks to a lack of data, there is not even a clear picture of the scale of the problem to be addressed. The results of 2020 and 2021 worker surveys are still to be published.
Even when they are, the reports will represent the tip of an iceberg, the expert panel at the Horticultural Sector Committee meeting argued.
After all, as Sehic says, how can exploitation be removed from the scheme “if we don’t understand the true scale of exploitation under the scheme?”