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The government’s Seasonal Worker Scheme has been under scrutiny for reported links to labour exploitation

Labour exploitation incidents across the food industry are on the rise, according to new data by anti-slavery charity Unseen.

The group has received a record number of calls to its modern slavery helpline, with high numbers of cases in areas including agriculture and farming, hospitality and manufacturing.

Unseen identified 49 cases of modern slavery in agriculture in 2023, as well as 235 so-called ‘potential victims’.

Hospitality had 73 cases and 324 potential victims flagged to the helpline. There were 15 cases in manufacturing and nine in logistics, with 62 and 25 potential victims identified in each sector respectively.

“Agriculture and hospitality and logistics remain stubbornly high as areas of forced labour. They are vulnerable sectors where exploitation is taking place,” said Unseen CEO Andrew Wallis.

The figures come as new research from Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) found the government’s seasonal workers scheme – which many farmers rely on to source migrant workforce – was leaving labourers trapped in cycles of debt.

Defra has this week committed to extending the seasonal worker visa route for a further five years until 2029.

Wallis said: “Things have improved since the first year of the [seasonal workers] scheme. But we still have large numbers reporting labour abuse. Some may not meet the threshold for modern slavery but we still have the phenomenon of debt bondage, where workers are having to pay to get these jobs.”

Read more: Seasonal worker returns higher despite human rights concerns

In addition to debt bondage – in which migrant workers from countries such as Indonesia, Nepal and India pay extortionate fees to local recruiters for a chance to work in the UK – food supply chain workers repeatedly face extensive working hours, and the non-payment of national minimum wage and holiday entitlement, according to Unseen.

Wallis said: “This is not a high profit margin industry but it’s still a profitable industry and some of those profits should be used to ensure workers’ rights and worker welfare.”

“It’s important that consumers understand that this constant drive for cheap goods and products puts an intolerable pressure into the system,” he added, creating “a temptation to either cut corners or to turn a blind eye” on issues of labour exploitation.

“We need good labour market enforcement and unfortunately we’ve seen the budget of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) cut, so the chances of inspection and discovery are reduced.”

Unseen’s annual report pointed to an 11% increase in labour abuse cases, up from 464 in 2022 to 516 in 2023. Ten percent of modern slavery cases raised by the helpline in 2023 involved minors.

Calls to Unseen’s helpline and contacts via the service’s web form and app rose by 20%, up from 9,779 in 2022 to 11,700 in 2023.

They were largely from potential victims, along with the public, businesses, and other professionals working in local government and the police.

Read more: Over half of migrant worker abuse in UK linked to food supply chains, report shows

The GLAA’s latest labour exploitation survey showed agriculture and hospitality were among the top five reported sectors in Q4 2023.

In agriculture, victims were predominantly male and the most common exploitation types were working long hours, inadequate pay, and poor accommodation.

Employers and recruitment agencies were “paying the workers inadequately, forcing them to become homeless due to charging high rent for caravans and withholding their documents” in the identified cases, according to the GLAA.

“The agriculture sector is a regulated sector and remains part of the GLAA control strategy priorities through the focus on exploitation of seasonal workers,” the GLAA said.

The UK’s tourism and hospitality industries also face “complex challenges in managing the risks of labour exploitation and modern slavery”, according to a recent study from the University of Surrey.

Possible risk indicators for modern slavery are a potentially vulnerable workforce, fragmented franchising, oversight challenges, and seasonal/temporary working arrangements.

Professor Karen Bullock, lead author of the study and Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey, said: “Our research has shed light on the vulnerability of workers in these industries and the potential threats arising from evolving employment models. It’s crucial for policymakers and employers to take note of these findings for informed decision-making and risk mitigation.”