How vulnerable are seasonal workers to exploitation?

31st March 2021 | Rural

A new report looking into the risk of human trafficking and forced labour for people coming to Scotland on the Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) in the horticultural sector.

The Clewer Initiative

In March, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) and Fife Migrants Forum (FMF) published a report looking into the risk of human trafficking and forced labour for people coming to Scotland on the Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) in the horticultural sector.

The research sought to document the voices and experiences of the people who have come to Scotland on the SWP and help the UK and Scottish governments develop strategies to protect current and future workers.

The two-year SWP was announced by the UK Government in 2018 in response to concerns raised by farmers about possible labour shortages in advance of and after the UK had left the European Union. The introduction of the SWP involved establishing a new Tier 5 sponsored visa, the Seasonal Workers Visa (SWV) and appointing two licensed scheme operators (Pilot Operators) as visa sponsors. The scheme was launched in April 2019 with an annual quota of 2,500 workers. This quota was increased to 10,000 in 2020; the SWP was extended for a further year and expanded to 30,000 workers in 2021.

FLEX believes that temporary and tied migration programmes such as the SWP have a range of risks associated with their short-term nature and the limited rights afforded to workers participating in them. In addition, horticulture is a high-risk labour sector due to the nature of its product and labour supply chain, isolated workplaces, and a large migrant workforce.

To assess the risks of human trafficking for forced labour for workers on the SWV, the team at FLEX collected quantitative and qualitative data on the experiences of seasonal horticultural workers in Scotland. This data collection took place during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and so the report also documents the impact of the pandemic on workers.

Based on 146 responses from agricultural workers, including 97 SWP workers from the top four nationalities present on the scheme, the report identifies several worrying trends that suggest a serious risk that forced labour could take place on the SWP if action is not taken.

For example, 62 per cent of workers reported incurring debts to travel to the UK to work, which places them in a more vulnerable position and at risk of accepting work they might otherwise not have accepted. Some of those interviewed were living in unsafe caravan accommodation provided by their employer, creating an unhealthy dependency on their employers, and also posing a risk of meeting the International Labour Organization (ILO) risk indicator of “degrading living conditions.”

In addition, the productivity payment system (piece rate) applied to 62 per cent of SWV workers and presents a risk to workers when coupled with zero hours contracts and the reported withdrawal of promised work as a penalty for not meeting piece rate targets. Sixty-six per cent of SWV workers reported receiving threats of loss of work and 17 per cent reported threats of deportation from their employer. Two thirds of those interviewed reported being refused transfers to alternative employment.

FLEX’s chief executive, Lucila Granada, concludes: “The evidence calls for an urgent review of the scheme, and for the government to carefully consider and mitigate potential risks for workers on the Seasonal Worker Visa.”

To read the report in full, click here

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