Seasonal horticultural workers are being threatened with deportation, housed in appalling conditions and treated like slaves by UK farm owners, the House of Lords horticultural sector committee recently heard.

In a committee evidence session into the experiences of seasonal workers last Thursday, Sybil Msezane, an ex-worker from South Africa, outlined the grimness of conditions faced by many workers when she recalled people “weren’t viewed, from my experience, as humans. We were more chattel on the farms”.

She added that at a number of farms she had been referred to as a number, and described the experience of being a seasonal worker in the UK horticulture sector as akin to “slave labour”.

Her experiences were echoed by Andrey Okhrimenko and Vadim Sardov, both former workers from Kazakhstan, who told peers they had received threats from managers that they were easily replaceable, and their visas could be removed if they didn’t perform properly.

The damning picture, which has been alluded to by sector bosses and human rights activists for many months, was finally painted by former workers themselves at the Lords hearing.

It’s a picture looks very bleak for many people.

Workers don’t enter the UK’s food system quickly enough

And if some disreputable growers are treating workers like slaves, how much worse does the situation need to get until something is actually done about it?

The government’s post-Brexit seasonal worker scheme has long been decried by farmers, growers and food producers as being not fit for purpose. Complaints range from the fact it doesn’t provide enough workers, to workers not getting to the UK fast enough.

Productivity has also fallen significantly since the UK left the EU – due to the departure of long-standing eastern European labourers who would return to the UK each year. The situation was then made even worse when the Ukrainians that replaced EU citizens post-Brexit were unable to return to the UK last year due to the war with Russia, forcing recruiters to cast the net even wider to far flung countries in Asia.

Growers have complained that the government has managed the scheme badly, with announcements over the size and scale of the seasonal worker scheme often made too late to plan for the upcoming harvest season – something that was finally addressed at the Number 10 Downing St food summit last month when Rishi Sunak made an early announcement that the scheme would be extended and enlarged for a further year in 2024

But it is now becoming increasingly clear there are even bigger issues around the scheme and bigger victims of government neglect on the issue of seasonal workers: the employees.

The government and recruiters will no doubt say work is being done to resolve these alarming human rights issues and, in some ways, they would be right. Across various bodies and institutions, there are currently four ongoing reviews covering the fresh produce supply chain and how it recruits and retains staff, while the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority recently signed agreements with the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to strengthen protections for workers arriving in the UK.

However, despite these initiatives, real action around how to protect often vulnerable workers with a poor grasp of English has yet to materialise.

And as the government embarks on a fifth review into the supply chain (via Defra’s upcoming horticulture supply chain fairness review), conditions for workers are clearly worsening.

In fact, the situation was so bad on some farms that Sardov said some workers were being driven to leaving the scheme entirely and working illegally instead.

A postcard picture of British seasonal workers is falsely painted

We are used to harrowing tales of mistreatment of illegal workers. Just look at the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster in 2004, where at least 21 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned while harvesting cockles in Lancashire.

But as consumers, we are led to believe that under the legal system, workers are not only treated well but are harvesting the nation’s produce under the British summer sun in a picturesque ideal. This is clearly not the case.

In a precarious scheme with many employers, recruiters, countries of origin and 45,000 temporary workers, poor treatment is clearly thriving in the shadowy corners of this unwieldy and what appears to be an increasingly out of control programme. 

Workers may have shed more light on these abusive areas at the Lords meeting, but there is only so much they can do to right these wrongs.

The government must bring in proper policing and regulation which is separate from immigration control, employees must be told where and how they can raise issues, and the scheme itself must be reined in so that only those from vetted countries with clear guidelines on that recruitment process can be allowed to participate.

Politicians claim to care about food production in this country, but without care for those on the frontline, those claims mean nothing at all.