'They're afraid': Seasonal farm workers face poor conditions and visa hurdles

There are calls to offer seasonal workers better incentives as workers state they are often treated poorly and struggle to cover their travel and living costs. Rupert Evelyn reports

“We weren’t viewed as humans. I don’t think the farmers even knew we existed outside of the weight of the fruit or vegetables we picked," says South African Sybil Msezane, who came to work in here in 2022.

"We were called by numbers which, for me, is not how you treat people you employ.”

The House of Lords Horticulture Select Committee has been hearing about the experience of seasonal workers who travel to the UK to work on fruit and vegetable farms.

It's described as “damning evidence.”

Vadim Sardov came from Kazakhstan: “I lived in a caravan. This place was full of cracks and holes. I had to sleep in a jacket because sometimes the temperature was the same as the temperature outside.

An army of hard-working migrants work in hot conditions. Credit: ITV News

"Women in other caravans had to sleep together, cuddling each other because it was too cold for them.”

Many workers put up with poor working conditions for fear of being sacked and being left with debts, says Andrey Okhrimenko, a former seasonal worker, also from Kazakhstan.

“They [workers] are afraid if they contact the farm or the sponsor because of a problem they may lose their job.”

For most of us, this industry is hidden from view. The UK fruit and vegetable picking business employs tens of thousands of low paid workers - almost all of from overseas.

This year, the government has increased the number of visas available for this work to 45,000.

Those will go to an army of hard-working migrants putting up with hot, humid conditions and with a visa scheme that only allows for six months’ work. Many of them may struggle to pay off the debts they may have incurred just to get here.

It’s not just workers who are struggling. Employers also aren’t happy with a seasonal visa scheme that fails to gives them what they need.

Nick Marston represents British Berry Growers. “We are absolutely reliant on it for ourworkforce. Without a seasonal workers scheme, the berry industry in the UK would simply disappear and collapse.

Nick Berry, of the Association of British Berry Growers. Credit: ITV News

"The negatives are that the rules are clunky, workers have to come here for six months only.

"We'd like that extended for nine months - that would help growers in terms of building up experience on farms. It also helped the workers, it gives them a better earning opportunityand more cash to go home with at the end of their season."

Data shows the source of migrant workers coming to the UK for seasonal work has shifted dramatically in recent years.

In 2019, more than 90 percent of seasonal worker visas were issued to those coming from Ukraine.

This was down to just 23 per cent last year - with a much greater reliance of workers from countries outside Europe like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

There have been changes in which countries are supplying the most seasonal workers to the UK in recent years. Credit: Report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration

For some the potential for exploitation of workers in the UK is similar to the migrants who built World Cup football stadiums in Qatar.

Adis Sehic is from the Work Rights Centre: “I think most people would find it quite difficult tocompare the two situations.

Adis Sehic is from the Work Rights Centre. Credit: ITV News

"But for us, actually, what we see is a real similarity in terms of the ways that workers are exploited. An example of that would be the charging of illegal recruitment fees in source countries. We're very concerned. "Right now, there's not a clear picture of how prevalent worker exploitation is across the country. But from our own experiences, we found that during the peak seasons, that is when most workers come to us and report instances of exploitation”.

In Devon one farmer hopes the industry will change. At Riverford Organic Farm only a handful of workers are employed under the seasonal visa scheme with workers here sharing in ownership of the business the jobs are more attractive to locals.

Guy Singh-Watson founder of Riverford Organic Farm. Credit: ITV News

Guy Singh-Watson is the founder “I think we need to see a progressive, iterative change away from very large scale vegetable production, with some questionable employment practices. Sometimes companies employing hundreds and hundreds of people, where there won't be a word of English spoken in the field.

"I feel a little bit shamed, actually, to be a part of an industry where that is the norm. And I think we need to progress it back to something which is a more human scale”.

A government spokesperson said: “The welfare of visa holders is of paramount importance, including in the Seasonal Workers scheme, and we are clamping down on poor working conditions and exploitation.

“We work closely with scheme operators who have responsibility for ensuring the welfare of migrant workers, requiring them to provide at least 32 hours paid employment per week andmanaging the recruitment process overseas. We will always take decisive action where we believe abusive practices are taking place or the conditions of the route are not met.” 

Easy changes ought to be like picking low hanging fruit.

But with the politics of immigration also in the frame, making alterations is likely to be easier said than done.

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