Extract from a Report from the Guardian- May 27 2022
Ditya (not her real name) a single mother from Nepal, is used to travelling abroad for work. For years she has made a living as a migrant farm worker, where she can earn several times what she would in her home country. Last year she applied to become part of the UK government’s seasonal worker visa scheme, picking fruit and vegetables on a farm in Herefordshire that supplies fresh produce to M&S, Tesco and Waitrose.
Ditya got the job, but it came at a huge cost. In order to secure it, she says she had to pay more than £3,000 – almost a third of what she earned during the six-month post – to recruitment agents.
Some of that money covered the cost of her flight and visa application. The rest appears to include illegal fees that labour rights experts describe as “exploitative and extortionate”.
A joint investigation by the Bureau and the Guardian can reveal that as many as 150 Nepalese workers who came to work at Cobrey farm in Herefordshire as part of the government scheme may have paid similar amounts, many of them claiming to have paid agents working for a UK-licensed recruitment company.
The findings suggest that the underfunding of labour enforcement, combined with the rapid expansion of the seasonal worker scheme – which aims to plug shortages created by Brexit and Covid-19 – could be putting thousands of migrant labourers at risk of exploitation.
Tesco and M&S, which both buy from Cobrey, have human rights policies requiring their suppliers to ensure workers are not charged fees.
Tesco and M&S told the Bureau they are urgently investigating the matter. Tesco added that any illegal fees had to be repaid in full. The workers who spoke to the Bureau said they have not yet been reimbursed.
A Waitrose spokesperson said the supermarket could not comment on the case, which was a live investigation, but it would “take whatever action” it needed to.
“We need food on the shelves in supermarkets, and [migrant workers] have come to make that happen,” said Emily Kenway, a researcher and former adviser to the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner. “We’ve got to hold up our side of the bargain, which does not include workers being fleeced in order to get here.”
The UK government launched the seasonal worker pilot scheme in 2019 to address concerns that the withdrawal from the EU would cause a shortage of labour for harvesting jobs on farms. Its rules state that workers should only pay a visa application fee of £259 (which was £244 until April this year) and travel costs. Any additional recruitment fees are illegal under UK law and can result in a labour provider being stripped of its licence.
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