george eustice official portrait

Source: UK Parliament

The former Defra secretary told The Grocer the scheme would be better if ‘full responsibility for managing it was transferred away from the Home Office’

George Eustice has called for significant changes to the seasonal worker scheme following further evidence of human rights abuses within the supply chain.

The former Defra secretary told The Grocer this week that the scheme would be better if “full responsibility for managing it was transferred away from the Home Office to Defra, where the policy expertise lies”.

Currently the scheme is jointly managed by the Home Office and Defra, with workers required to apply through approved scheme operators for farm placements.

Eustice added, while in his role heading up Defra, that he had developed “detailed plans to enable seasonal workers to switch between both employers and operators after they arrived in the UK, so there was more competition within the system and to prevent problems of bonded labour”.

“The government should also make it easier for reputable growers to recruit directly rather than having to go through operators,” he added. “All of these improvements could be delivered if responsibility for the policy were removed from the Home Office.”

The Grocer reported earlier this month that campaigners were warning it was often difficult for workers to move between sites should there be issues with individual farms, which has led some to say they are “never coming [to the UK] again” because “it’s the worst [conditions] it’s ever been”.

It comes as a new report published by The Independent and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism this week accused the Home Office of failing to investigate hundreds of allegations of mistreatment by workers who came to the UK on the seasonal worker visa.

From 19 farm inspection reports seen by TBIJ, nearly half (44%) of the 845 interviewed workers raised welfare issues including racism, wage theft and threats of being sent back home.

However, none of the allegations raised during these inspections were investigated by the Home Office or visa scheme operators, according to a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration.

The report also indicated the government department had tried to stop the allegations from being made public.

This was described as “outrageous” by Caroline Robinson, project advisor for Worker Support Centre Scotland, a non-profit which supports seasonal workers in Scotland with advice and information, who added that the scheme had not been given “the thought, priority and resources it deserves”.

“This scheme urgently needs much better regulation and oversight. At the moment far too much is left up to the scheme operators to address. The government cannot outsource its obligations to protect these workers,” she added.

The Home Office was approached for comment.