An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and The Independent has uncovered evidence suggesting that workers who had travelled thousands of miles to fill gaps in the UK’s agriculture workforce were publicly humiliated, not paid for all the hours they worked, and forced to live in substandard conditions.
The Home Office gathered the evidence in secret reports in 2021 and 2022, which it tried to prevent from being made public and were only released after a five-month battle.
The alleged mistreatment of migrants on seasonal workers’ visas is so stark that the government could be in breach of its obligations over the prevention of modern slavery, it has been claimed.
The investigation has found:
A Ukrainian woman working as a fruit picker hired by a government-registered recruiter claims she was left “starving” after being confined to her caravan without access to medical assistance or food for 11 days when she caught Covid-19
The worker says a colleague pulled out their own tooth after being denied dental care by the farm
A Moldovan worker was allegedly only allowed one 15-minute break and was prevented from going to the toilet, drinking water or having any food until she hit her targets
The stories emerged after TBIJ obtained 19 inspection reports produced by the Home Office into farms that employ individuals on seasonal workers’ visas. The documents, released after a successful appeal by TBIJ, summarise the interviews and findings of the inspectors who visited the sites. The names of the farms were redacted by the Home Office for commercial reasons.
A senior Conservative who sits on the all-party parliamentary group on modern slavery and trafficking said the findings showed modern slavery was “everywhere” and the Home Office must take action when abuse is identified.
Tory MP Jackie Doyle-Price told The Independent: “What this shows is that modern slavery is everywhere. And migrant workers are as likely to be subject to it whether they come here legally or illegally.
“It is very clear that seasonal workers are a vulnerable group, and it is incumbent on the Home Office to ensure that its assessment procedures are robust and that action is taken when abuse is identified.”
The UK government launched the seasonal worker scheme in 2019 to address labour shortages, which it expected to be exacerbated by Brexit.
An initial 2,500 visas were available at its launch. This year, as many as 55,000 are expected to be issued to people from countries including Kyrgyzstan, South Africa and Ukraine to work on hundreds of farms across the UK. The reports reveal that workers involved in the scheme have faced far greater levels of exploitation than the government has previously admitted.
According to TBIJ’s analysis of the inspection reports, nearly half of the workers interviewed raised welfare issues, including racism, wage theft, and threats of being sent back home if they failed to hit their targets. At one farm, where more than a dozen people complained about being mistreated, a manager was reported to have shouted: “I am a pure-blooded English woman, I will stay to live here and you will go back to your poor countries.”
The allegations of abuse raised in the Home Office reports covered working hours and living conditions, but none have been investigated, according to a report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
Farming minister Mark Spencer even claimed last month that people on the scheme are “very well looked after” and that employers “make sure that their welfare needs are met”.
Human rights lawyers said the failure to investigate could mean that the government has breached its obligation to prevent forced labour under the European Convention on Human Rights. Jamila Duncan-Bosu, a solicitor with the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, a charity bringing claims on behalf of modern slavery victims, accused the government of “state-sponsored exploitation”.
Unpaid hours are common, according to the Home Office reports – in nearly two-thirds of farms inspected, workers said they were not always paid for the hours they had worked or travelled, or had faced excessive deductions beyond the maximum allowed by law.
Unlike other work visas, where employers sponsor workers’ residency permits, the agricultural seasonal worker visa relies on six licensed recruiters, who often decide which farms people will work in and whether they can be transferred to other farms if they face problems or if work dries up.
The recruiters are also required to ensure that participants are properly paid, treated fairly, and live in hygienic accommodation. Despite the numerous issues raised with the inspectors, no government-licensed scheme recruiter has lost its licence or been sanctioned for failing to meet these standards.
Meanwhile, the findings also reveal unlawful recruitment fees are more common than previously thought, with workers from six countries saying they had paid recruiters as much as £7,500 for jobs in the UK. The charging of such fees is illegal.
Liberal Democrat peer Jeremy Purvis, who is also a member of the modern slavery APPG, said the revelations were “horrifying”. He added that the government’s Illegal Migration Act would make the problem worse, by preventing those who come to the UK via illegal routes from accessing modern slavery protections.
He said ministers had “completely cut the legs off any ability for Britain to be moral leaders in the world on this”.
“Modern slavery is an ongoing issue in the UK, and Britain is inevitably a draw for many people, as other rich nations are,” he told The Independent. “But I believe very strongly that it gives us an increased moral responsibility to ensure people who are here legitimately to work are not exploited.”
In response to TBIJ’s findings, the Home Office said that “each year improvements have been made to stop exploitation and clamp down on poor working conditions”.
It added that a new team had been established to safeguard workers’ rights by “improving training and processes for compliance inspectors and creating clear published guidance for robust action for scheme operators where workers are at risk of exploitation”.
Additional reporting by Archie Mitchell