This piece is part of the Exploits series, from Wicked Leeks and Live Frankly, aiming to highlight the systemic poor conditions faced by people working in food and fashion. Find out more here.
The Home Office failed to investigate hundreds of allegations by agricultural workers, and then tried to stop the allegations from being made public, an investigation by the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has found.
‘State-sponsored exploitation’ on UK farms
Following a five-month freedom of information battle, TBIJ was given access to 19 farm inspection reports produced by the Home Office between 2021 and 2022.
Nearly half (44%) of the 845 workers interviewed as part of the inspections raised welfare issues including wage theft, racism and public humiliation.
On most of the inspected farms, there were allegations of mistreatment or discrimination. More than 80% of workers interviewed on the three most complained about farms raised an issue of some sort.
But none of the allegations raised during these inspections were investigated by the Home Office.
Failing to investigate the abuses highlighted in the reports could mean the government has breached its obligations to prevent forced labour under the European Convention on Human Rights, according to Jamila Duncan-Bosu, a solicitor with the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, a charity bringing claims on behalf of modern slavery victims.
“Essentially, it is state-sponsored exploitation,” she says.
Reports of abuse
One woman told inspectors she was confined to her caravan without access to medical assistance or food for 11 days when she caught Covid-19. She said she was “starving” and was not provided with any support by her scheme operator, one of the small number of recruitment companies authorised by the government to arrange seasonal worker visas.
Another person reported that a colleague was denied dental care, leading to them pulling out their own tooth.
In nearly two thirds of farms inspected in 2021 and 2022, workers said they were not always paid for the hours they worked, were off sick, or they faced deductions beyond the maximum allowed by law.
One farm had been reported by HMRC to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for failing to pay the minimum wage.
The findings of the investigation also reveal they were paying unlawful recruitment fees and unfair rents.
People were also made to work 12-hour days or back-to-back for up to two weeks, and without having agreed to do so, according to one Home Office inspector.
“All that’s missing is a whip”
These allegations are findings of inspectors who visited farms employing people who came to the UK on the seasonal worker visa. The revelations suggest that people who travelled thousands of miles to fill gaps in the UK’s agricultural workforce faced far greater levels of exploitation than previously thought.
At one farm, when workers told their managers they needed a day off, the response was: “You have come here to work, so you have to work,” the official wrote.
At another – 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.”
“All that is missing is a whip to beat people,” said one Moldovan worker.
Visa “perfect recipe for exploitation”
The reports contradict claims by government ministers and visa scheme operators about the treatment of seasonal workers on British farms. Last month, farming minister Mark Spencer claimed people on the scheme are “very well looked after” and that employers “make sure that their welfare needs are met”.
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”.
The visa scheme operators are required to ensure participants are properly paid, treated fairly and live in hygienic accommodation.
This doesn’t appear to be the case. In a recent article penned for Wicked Leeks, journalist for TBIJ Emiliano Mellino explained:
“Since before its launch in 2019, human rights organisations have warned that the way the visa was designed was a perfect recipe for exploitation. The visa limits workers to a maximum six-month placement in the UK horticulture sector. They are also tied to their recruiters, who have the power to decide if and where they can get jobs. Furthermore, workers have to pay for their own flights and visas, meaning many arrive in the UK with huge debts they need to pay off.”
Troubling government inaction
Despite the numerous issues raised with the inspectors, no government-licensed scheme operator has lost its licence or been sanctioned for failing to meet these standards.
Some have, however, been penalised when workers stayed in the UK beyond the end of their visas.
“I think it’s very troubling that [the government] is more concerned about whether people have left the country rather than were they treated properly, fairly and with the dignity that they deserve,” said Dame Sara Thornton, the government’s former independent anti-slavery commissioner.
Main image: Julia Quecaño Casimiro is a farm worker out to raise awareness of the issues faced by people on the UK government’s seasonal worker visa scheme. Photo: Nacho Rivera for TBIJ