Seasonal fruit pickers left thousands in debt after being sent home early from UK farms | Immigration and asylum
Nepali workers hired to pick fruit on British farms say they found themselves in debt of several thousand pounds after being sent home just weeks after arriving.
The fruit pickers were recruited under the government’s seasonal worker scheme and say they were offered work for six months. But less than two months after arriving, they were told they were no longer needed and told to book flights home.
The workers said they quit their jobs to come to the UK and found themselves thousands of pounds in debt after borrowing money to cover their flights and expenses from third-party job brokers . They also face high airfares to rearrange return trips.
Some of the workers, who arrived in September, have already left. Others who cannot afford tickets have been told to leave the farm where they worked in Kent – which has supplied supermarkets such as Tesco, Co-op and M&S – or risk being “blacklisted” from future jobs.
“If you ignore this email and we don’t get a response… we will have to cancel your visas and blacklist you, unfortunately,” said an email sent to a group of workers by the agency for the first time. AG Recruitment employment on November 4th.
One worker, Sajit*, said he had sold his shop to come to the UK and still had more than £3,000 in debt to pay, around a year’s salary in Nepal. “They told us that six months would be a good amount of money for us, but we receive less money than in Nepal. If we go back, we have no more work,” he said.
The Observer spoke to 12 people who arrived to pick apples and other fruit in early September and have now been told they have to go home early by AG Recruitment, one of the four official operators of the seasonal worker scheme for the horticultural sector. No less than 60 Nepalese workers would be affected.
The early termination means many are now scrambling for other jobs to help pay off the debts they have accumulated. Some say they applied to restaurants and shops but were turned down because of their visa type. Others say they asked AG Recruitment to be sent to other farms, but were told no placements were available. Strict visa rules prevent them from working in other sectors or at farms unrelated to their original sponsor.
With no way to work, they risk returning home in a worse situation than when they arrived. Manish*, whose income supports his children and wife in Nepal, said he had run up debts of nearly £5,000 and still had to pay more than half of it. He will likely start accumulating significant interest and fears the debt will take years to pay off.
“I don’t think I will get my job back in Nepal… If I go back to Nepal in four or five years, I can repay the loan,” he said.
Even workers who did not use the services of recruitment agents paid around £1,500 each for airfare and visa fees before setting foot in the UK. One said that although he had roughly managed to pay off his debts, he could not afford the airline fee, which could be up to £200, to change his flight home, which had been booked for next year.
The findings will fuel concerns over the treatment of migrant workers under Britain’s seasonal worker scheme, which was launched to address labor shortages in food production and allows people to work on UK farms for a maximum of six months. Under this scheme, they cannot stay long term, apply for benefits or bring their families.
The number of seasonal work visas issued each year by the Home Office has increased since their launch in 2019, from 2,500 in the first year to around 40,000 in 2022, including many from countries outside Europe. But the scheme has been marred by allegations of exploitation, with reports earlier this year alleging some workers in Nepal and Indonesia were being charged high recruitment fees by third-party job brokers, putting them at risk. of debt bondage.
Migrant rights experts say better protections are needed for seasonal workers, including offering them guaranteed hours and allowing them to seek other types of work when agricultural jobs are unavailable.
“It’s not fair to expect them to pay the financial costs of migrating with no real guarantee of work for the six months they are allowed to work in the UK,” said Kate Roberts, manager policy at Focus on Labor Exploitation (Flex ). “There must be protection against these loopholes in the regime.”
Fees paid by fruit pickers whose internships have just ended were largely in cash to job brokers based in Nepal, which are unrelated to AG Recruitment. The workers say they paid because the agents guaranteed them a visa and a place in the seasonal worker scheme.
AG Recruitment said it was unaware that any workers had been charged. “We make it very clear both during our recruitment process and in all of our contracts that it is illegal for anyone to ask a worker to pay for their work,” the company said.
He also said he intended to provide six months of work but the nature of the seasonal work meant this could not be guaranteed, adding that workers were told this directly in Zoom chats during the process. recruitment.
Documents seen by the Observer show workers were initially told they would be coming to the UK to work on a farm for six months. But about ten days before their departure, they were informed that this placement had been canceled and that they were now going to go to another farm.
The workers, who had already purchased flights and visas, were told the new placement would be for two months instead of six, but say they believed that after completion they would be transferred to another farm. AG’s emails show they were assured there would be “lots of work” and the opportunity to earn “lots of money”.
The workers then traveled to the UK and began working on a farm run by Gaskains in Faversham, Kent. But when those shifts ended less than two months later, AG told them there was nowhere to go.
AG Recruitment said that although it arranged four to six months of work for fruit pickers before they arrived in the UK, ‘extreme circumstances’ meant it could not transfer them to another agricultural employer like intended.
He said the reasons for this included the war in Ukraine which delayed the issuance of visas and the hot summer which damaged crops.
The workers asked why they had been recruited towards the end of the season and said they would not have come if they had known there would only be two months of work.
“They need to know that the season is about to end. We didn’t realize that [it was] the first time we came here,” said Kamal*, who plans to sell family land to cover debts he incurred to come to work in the UK. “Why did they hire us at the end of the season? It would have been better if they hadn’t hired us at all.
Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, chief executive of the Work Rights Centre, said the workers’ early dismissal would have left them “in complete shock”. “If they manage to buy new flights in time to avoid deportation, it wipes out most of what they’ve earned. But if they can’t, they risk sleeping rough and working illegally. on the black market, where they are completely vulnerable,” she said.
In a report, AG Recruitment said it was conducting an internal review. He said he provided social assistance to the workers, adding that although they were disappointed not to have extra work, they were “satisfied with their income”. “We sincerely regret that we were unable to place everyone who wanted to work, despite our best efforts,” said Douglas Amesz, the company’s chief executive.
Regarding the threat of blacklisting, the company said workers were required to “maintain communication with their sponsor in accordance with immigration rules” and could be blacklisted from any future work with them. AG if they didn’t. She added that she was not responsible for the costs incurred by the workers to change their return tickets.
Gaskains, which supplies several UK supermarkets, said it was aware further work had been planned for fruit pickers and felt AG had ‘done its best’ to find some ‘when staff requests in progress have been cancelled”. Charles Gaskain, the company’s director, said it was “a pity that such a changeable season…has so unusually created this situation”.
Tesco, which buys apples from Gaskains and has previously been linked to other farms hiring workers through AG Recruitment, said it was aware of the ‘wider complexities’ in the seasonal worker supply chain and was investigating . Co-op and M&S, which listed Gaskains in their 2022 supplier directories, said they had not received fruit from the farm during the relevant period and it was not a current supplier .
The Home Office said: ‘The Seasonal Worker Road has been in operation for three years and every year improvements have been made to stop the operation.
*Names have been changed