The NFU has hit back at claims from two MPs that the Government’s new seasonal agricultural workers pilot will increase the risk of modern slavery.
Labour and Co-operative MPs Alex Norris, who represents Nottingham North, and Gareth Snell, Stoke-on-Trent Central, made the claims in a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament last week (February 12).
Five months ago, the Government announced it would launch the two-year pilot this spring, allowing fruit and vegetable growers to hire non-EU workers for up to six months.
Mr Norris, who secured the debate, said: “As formulated, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, or SAWS, presents a significant risk of creating slavery.
“For migrant workers, it represents a chance to improve their lives, but it carries the risk of workers being treated as a disposable asset, creating a recipe for exploitation.”
Though Mr Norris said he did not want to stop the pilot altogether, he claimed the previous SAWS which was closed in 2013 had seen workers report ‘utter deprivation’ due to ‘low hours, bad weather, being paid less than the minimum wage and being unable to afford to fly home’.
He, along with Mr Snell, suggested every worker brought into the UK under the scheme should be given access to a trade union and knowledge of what their rights are and how to enforce them.
But Ali Capper, chairman of the NFU horticulture board, told Farmers Guardian workers in the farming industry have a double layer of protection from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and retailer audits.
“If I bring in workers from labour agencies, I have to be able to prove to the retailer I have gone and done an audit of accommodation, I have to prove I have asked workers if they are being treated fairly, I have to prove I have checked their payslips to make sure what I am paying the labour provider is what is being paid to the worker,” said Ms Capper.
“No other sector goes through any of this. It is a shame farming is always in the spotlight when there are debates and discussions about modern slavery.
“When you look at the statistics, it is other industries such as cars washes and nail bars where the problem sits.
“We have got enough to worry about without this distraction.”
Nick Hurd, the Government Minister responding to the debate, said the GLAA had recently been given new powers to investigate modern slavery.
He also pointed out the pilot scheme operators had been given responsibility for ensuring the welfare of workers and the Home Office would revoke their licences if they failed to meet the requirements.