Fruit picking workers vineyard

Source: Matthias Mitterlehner on Unsplash

There have been increased reports of worker exploitation in farms across the UK

Two men have been arrested on suspicion of exploiting Bulgarian farm workers in West Sussex.

Sussex Police have arrested two Bulgarian nationals, both aged 33, on suspicion of modern slavery offences after a raid at two different addresses in Bognor Regis last week.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) said it had received information that the suspects were “exploiting and controlling Bulgarian workers arriving in the UK by charging them for transport and to complete their UK settlement applications”.

“Allegations were also made that the pair subjected workers to threats if they did not pay them,” said GLAA investigating officer Paul Williams. “We will not hesitate to act where we have information that vulnerable workers are potentially being exploited for their labour.”

The GLAA confirmed the two men have now been released under investigation “while our enquiries continue”.

Detective superintendent Stuart Hale added: “Sussex Police’s support of the GLAA in this operation should send a clear message that modern slavery and exploitation will not be tolerated in the county.

“We will continue to work closely with our partners to share intelligence, safeguard vulnerable people and bring those who would cause them harm to justice.”

Seasonal workers are at risk of abuse. Regulation needs to catch up

But the latest West Sussex arrests come amid increasing worries that farm workers are becoming victims of labour exploitation in farms across the UK. 

Prior to Brexit, UK employers relied heavily on seasonal workers from eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania.

They then turned to Ukraine to fill the gap left by EU seasonal labourers after the UK exited the bloc, but the Russian invasion last year led to increased recruitment from Southeast Asian countries.

However there have been several recent reports of workers paying thousands of pounds in fees to agencies in their home countries and then struggling to pay off their debts once in the UK.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported last week there had been widespread mistreatment of workers coming to the UK via the government’s seasonal worker scheme at numerous farms, nurseries and packhouses in 2022.

The workers were facing “systemic bullying, abuse and growing debt”, the BIJ claimed.

A group of the UK’s biggest supermarkets have now announced they will start funding tighter auditing processes to help tackle claims of debt bondage across the country’s supply chains.