Just a few weeks ahead of workers arriving in the UK for the 2021 fruit and vegetable campaign the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme has come under blistering attack from a London-based human rights charity.
FLEX (Focus on Labour Exploitation) has published a report which concludes ‘there is a serious risk that forced labour could take place if action is not taken.’
The SAWS pilot has been expanded from 10,000 places in 2020 to 30,000 places in 2021 and is a major source of harvest labour now that freedom of movement into the UK has been curtailed.
FLEX, along with the Fife Migrant Forum, which receives some Government funding, had interviewed more than 100 workers last season and identified a number of issues including lack of guaranteed working hours and ‘deceit in recruitment’.
A problem with ‘debt bondage’ was also raised.
The £244 visa cost, plus travel costs, could amount to £1,000 of debt having to be paid off either in the workers’ home country or in the UK.
Other workers had cited the ‘impossibility’ of leaving an employer to move to another farm.
Scottish Rural Affairs Minister Ben Macpherson, who along with Migration Minister Jenny Gilruth, has written to UK Immigration Minister Kevin Foster asking for ‘an urgent, comprehensive and effective response’ to the FLEX report.
In a separate statement Mr Macpherson said: “The research also shows that many people who come to Scotland as seasonal workers have a positive experience and that some return year after year. We want to build on best practice to ensure everyone coming to Scotland has a positive experience.
“In order to help seasonal agricultural workers with any issues they may have during their time in Scotland, we have provided RSABI with funding to allow them to run a pilot to extend the scope of their current helpline. This will include a translator service which will be available out of hours.”
Mr Macpherson also committed to addressing the ‘relevant recommendations from the research’ and would seek to work with the UK Government on areas where devolved and reserved issues intersect.
“The report indicates that the Seasonal Workers Pilot is not functioning as it should for employers or seasonal workers and - in addition to the considerable cost and bureaucracy involved in participating in the scheme - the UK Government must make necessary improvements in order for the scheme to meet the needs of the sector,” he added.
Iain Brown, NFU Scotland Horticulture Working Group chair, said: “Migrant workers are a vital asset and they are a critical part of the sector’s success.
"It is therefore essential that Scotland remains a desirable place to work, and with an employee return rate of about 70 per cent, we know that most farm businesses are considered attractive and rewarding places to work.
“For some workers however their experiences while working in the UK are not acceptable.
"NFU Scotland will be working with its members and the wider industry to address this.
“In Scotland agricultural wages are higher than those in England, and higher than the minimum wage. We believe that higher wages, coupled with robust auditing by Sedex and the GLAA make good working conditions the norm in Scotland, and we will work hard with the sector to extend this to all farms.
“The FLEX report has highlighted many flaws in the UK-wide scheme, particularly the debt burden placed on migrant workers, and poor or false information that has sadly resulted in some unsuitable and uninformed candidates coming to Scotland to work. This difficult situation has resulted in people feeling trapped in some cases.
“The Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating impact last year, and the necessary lockdown requirements of quarantine and isolation will have doubtless made it more difficult for migrant workers.
“NFU Scotland wants to see a permanent scheme that gives farm businesses the ability to recruit directly, which worked so well in the past. If farm businesses can go back to directly engaging with the recruitment process then this will benefit workers and businesses alike.”