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Business of Food

Supermarkets warn seasonal worker visa puts migrants at risk of exploitation

Young woman with glasses smiling
3 min read
AUTHOR: Molly Long
Apple picking in orchard

UK supermarkets are increasingly concerned that the Government’s seasonal worker visa is compromising their public pledges on preventing human rights abuses within supply chains.

According to a report from The Guardian, the country’s biggest grocery chains have warned that the hurriedly designed scheme puts vulnerable migrants at risk of exploitation.

The newspaper report says supermarkets have been holding urgent roundtable meetings with growers recently to try to find a way of preventing workers from being further taken advantage of through it.

The seasonal worker scheme (SWS) visa was developed to plug the gaps left in the UK labour market post-Brexit. Workers are taken on for six-month contracts, usually for jobs like fruit picking and other farm work.

However, several elements of the scheme are not fit for purpose, The Guardian suggests. For example, while charging migrants recruitment fees is illegal, the workers are expected to cover the cost of international flights and documentation fees.

These are considerable expenses that can leave workers in debt before they’ve even made it to the UK. David Camp, Director of the Association of Labour Providers, criticised the scheme to the newspaper: “We should have a system where workers don’t have to go into debt to come and work in the UK. That should be a given.”

Another issue which has arisen in recent months is too many visas being granted, and often too late in the year. The scheme was initially piloted with just 2,500 visas in 2019, but it has since expanded rapidly to well over 33,000 annually.

Some 8,000 extra visas were also issued in June, meaning that once workers had actually been sourced, hired, and flown to the UK, there was simply not enough work left to be done during the harvest season. For the many migrant workers that had taken on debt to get to the UK, this meant several were left with no recourse to repay what they owed. This could see many looking to find work on the black market to make their money back.

In a bid to help seasonal workers better understand their labour rights, the Association of Labour Providers, alongside visa operators, supermarkets and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority have collaborated on a mobile app which provides clear advice to migrant workers.

The Just Good Work app provides workers with critical information and access to help at every stage of their recruitment and employment journey.

The SWS version of the app launched earlier this year with sector-wide information and reporting. Several new languages including Russian, Indonesian, Nepali, Serbian and Vietnamese were also added, in addition to Albanian, Bulgarian, Gujarati, Romanian, Polish and Ukrainian which were already available on the app.

Commenting on the launch of the SWS app at the time, Camp said: “The ALP is delighted to continue our collaboration with the Just Good Work app to support seasonal horticultural workers to have clear information on all aspects of working on UK farms during the whole of their recruitment and employment experience.

Working with all stakeholders and building in workers’ feedback will enable us to continuously improve the app as a valuable resource to support seasonal workers in having a positive experience working in UK horticulture.”

Understand the issues surrounding the UK’s labour shortage, and how it might be fixed, in this episode of the Food Matters Live Podcast:

How can the UK food sector solve its labour shortage?


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