When demand for workers outweighs supply, criminal labour exploitation often flourishes. This has become a particular issue this summer because the usual supply of workers has been significantly hampered by restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus pandemic and also due to the impending impact of Brexit.
To add fuel to the fire, industry shut-downs which have come into effect to help fight COVID-19 have resulted in increased numbers of vulnerable workers looking for work in rural areas and has pushed exploiters to move away from some of industries they usually operate in. Combine these factors and it’s easy to see why the agricultural sector appears attractive to criminal gangs who are looking to exploit vulnerable workers.
You may be wondering – how can a farmer or grower employ modern day slaves without realising it? The reality is that many farmers rely on third party recruitment agencies, or labour providers, to find seasonal workers and not all these third parties are legitimate and fair businesses. Across the UK, exploiters pose as legal labour providers, offering employers and farmers a ready supply of labour, while in fact they are forcing workers into jobs for little or no money. These highly organised, ruthless criminal gangs exploit the high demand for short term labour, often targeting migrant workers who may not be fluent in English or familiar with UK workers’ rights, making them more vulnerable to being coerced and controlled.
The dangers caused by the increasing pressure on this labour market and knowledge that modern slavery is going unnoticed in rural areas prompted The Clewer Initiative and its partners to develop the Farm Work Welfare App (FWWA) to support both farmers and workers. We need to arm farmers with the information and tools they need to avoid criminal organisations and promote worker welfare. We want to support pickers and help them understand their rights and what to do if they are being exploited. Finally, we want to encourage members of the public who live or work in rural areas to be alert to the signs of exploitation that may be in plain sight.
Warning signs might include situations such as a worker who appears to have no activity at weekends or workers who wait by the side of the road after their shift to be picked up by a minibus or a van. Similarly, people might notice migrant workers being housed in substandard caravans close to their place of work, or in tents in fields, makeshift shelters or on wastelands. All of these clues could point to the presence of modern-day slavery and can be submitted via the app to the Modern Slavery Helpline which will process the information, identify hot spots, alert enforcement authorities when appropriate and, most importantly, support victims.
Our goal is that the FWWA app will be as successful (if not more!) as the Safe Car Wash app which has been downloaded around 20,000 times since its launch in June 2018. In fact, in the six months prior to lockdown, the Safe Car Wash app generated an average of 171 reports a month, a sign that modern slavery is ever present in our communities but also that people are beginning to notice it and look for ways to report and reduce it.
The FWWA app is easy to use, available in eight languages and should become an essential tool for farmers and growers as they try to fulfil their responsibilities and avoid engaging workers against their will. Most of all, we hope it will help everyone in the sector know what ‘good’ looks like and will become a key source of information on the recruitment of seasonal workers, particularly post-Brexit.
For more information, visit https://www.theclewerinitiative.org/campaigns/the-farm-work-welfare-app
The app can be downloaded from Apple and Android app stores and is available in Albanian, Bulgarian, English, Lithuanian, Romanian, Polish, Chinese (Mandarin) and Vietnamese.