On 13 November the Guardian reported on the sacking of Nepalese fruit pickers – moves that left them destitute, unable to afford to go home and unable to repay the arrangements fees for their work in the UK. As well as being left destitute, loss of employment immediately renders them irregular immigrants, liable to forcible detention and deportation. This article explains how the UK’s exploitative model of immigration further compounds the problems of irregular immigration and modern slavery.
Seasonal worker visas
The UK’s seasonal workers’ scheme allows workers to be recruited from abroad for seasonal work, usually fruit and vegetable planting or picking. The visa is for a maximum of six months if the work is agricultural, or three months for food processing. Approved sponsors, usually recruitment agencies, link workers with an emploer. Larger agricultural or food processing businesses may apply for a sponsorship licence and sponsor workers directly.
There is an application fee of £259 which may be paid by the sponsor or the worker, or may form part of a debt to be repaid once work has started. The visa holder must remain sponsored on the appropriate visa throughout their stay in the UK. If recruited by an agency, the agency may find them alternative work that still conforms to the visa. If the worker is employed directly by a business, the likelihood of re-employment elsewhere with another approved business that can offer work within the terms of the visa is much reduced.
Seasonal workers: employers’ responsibilities
The seasonal worker regulations mean that employment must be through a Defra-approved and Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) licensed employer or agency. The agencies managing the system in the UK are generally reputable, and the paperwork involved is so onerous and complex that only a company with significant administrative and legal resources would contemplate it. The company must provide evidence of their systems and codes of conduct and undergo inspections and other checks by the GLAA and by HMRC.
Sponsors ensure statutory minimum wages are paid and that accommodation (which is usually provided in caravans on farms) is charged at a fair rate. However, they have no control over employers who fail to provide enough work or who lay off workers, sometimes on a whim.
If a worker loses employment, the sponsor must report this to the Home Office with the last known address, telephone number and email contact. So long as the sponsor “tell[s] us that you are no longer sponsoring the worker for any other reason – for example, you have dismissed them or they have resigned”, the sponsor has no further obligation to assist the worker to find another job or another sponsor, or to manage the implications of the worker having lost their right to work and sustain themselves.
The penalties for failing to make the right checks, provide the right paperwork or inform the authorities of any change in circumstances are very high, and could lead to criminal charges and imprisonment, but there are no penalties for leaving a worker destitute in a foreign country in which they do not speak the language.
Workers trapped in exploitative employment
The scheme can work well for employers and employees. UK growers have the labour they need at a price they can afford without incurring longer term employment commitments. In turn workers can expect that for six months they will earn good money. So often, though, expectations are not met, or workers are knowingly exploited. And many workers are trapped working for the designated employer, unable to find another sponsor and fearful that making complaints will lead to them being sacked.
The legal requirements of the scheme mean they cannot negotiate their own terms or conditions or find another employer if their own proves unsatisfactory or abusive. Prior to Brexit, market forces prevailed, because EU workers had much more control over their working conditions and had the capacity to change employer. Workers brought in from outside the EU also benefitted from this, because employers could not legally discriminate against them on the basis of their nationality.
Debts back home
Sponsoring agencies, DEFRA and the GLAA have no control over the recruiting agencies in Nepal, or elsewhere. These agencies can charge prospective employees large sums of money (usually by way of a loan) to arrange employment. They promise legal, steady continuous employment for good wages and, while some arrangements will be exploitative from the outset, many recruiting agencies have good reason to believe that their promises can be fulfilled, including the need for labour in the UK.
Workers are assured that they are working with government-approved organisations in the UK. Exploitation, and the penalties of bonded labour may only kick in when the market crumbles or circumstances change, as appears to be the case with these Nepalese workers. Even if they could get home, they will still owe the recruitment agency money, money that will have to be repaid, perhaps by agreeing to far worse conditions that those contained in their original contract.
A person in the UK is deemed to be an illegal immigrant if they do not have a right to be in the UK. Migrants in the UK are only legally in the UK for as long as they comply with their entry visas, and those on the seasonal visa route are only legally in the UK for as long as they have a sponsor. As soon as their sponsorship ends, their immigration status becomes insecure.
Generally, there is a 60 day ‘grace’ period in which they must leave the UK (or earlier if their visa ends before then) after which they are automatically illegal immigrants and liable for criminal charges and deportation.
One of the conditions of the seasonal work visa is ‘no recourse to public funds’. Seasonal workers who lose their jobs lose their incomes and, usually, their accommodation. They cannot afford to go home, but have no right to work in any employment other than through the sponsorship route. If they undertake work outside of their visa conditions, they are automatically considered to be doing so illegally.
All employers must undertake ‘right to work’ checks or risk substantial fines or imprisonment. These Nepalese workers have no ‘right to work’ in any employment other than which is covered by their visa (and through a sponsored route) and so reputable companies will not employ them. Their only chance of survival is as exploited labour with criminal enterprises, or in businesses who are comfortable with breaking immigration, employment and tax law.
Exploited workers may even be taken on by the farms that have laid them off, but at a much lower rate. They may have contacts who can help them access bits and pieces of work and they may be offered illegal work once their destitution is visible. They may never earn enough to save for their passage home and can easily become trapped in slavery conditions, living under the constant threat of imprisonment and deportation.
Government policies making legal immigrants illegal
I have previously written about immigrant worker exploitation in the garment and meat processing sectors; the care and health sector; and in respect of exploited Albanian labour. This recent case of exploitation of those working on the seasonal visa scheme is another example of how post-Brexit immigration rules have increased the risks of modern slavery and exploitation.
The UK, along with Germany, has twice as many irregular immigrants as any other European country. It is a destination country for migrants and for those smuggling labour for exploitation. Many others have come to the country legally but are trapped here, unable to go home, but also unable to integrate into British society, constantly living in the shadows. The government’s punitive approach to migrants drives them underground where there is a ready market for their labour or criminality.