The UK government has expanded its seasonal worker visa scheme to allow more foreign workers to come and work in horticulture and poultry sectors. The scheme aims to address the labour shortages caused by Brexit and the war in Ukraine, which have reduced the number of European workers available for seasonal work. However, the scheme has also raised concerns about the potential exploitation and abuse of workers, who may face high debts, poor working conditions and limited rights.

The seasonal worker visa allows workers to come to the UK for up to six months to work in specific jobs, such as picking fruits, vegetables or flowers, or processing poultry. The workers need to have a sponsor, who is an approved scheme operator, and meet other eligibility requirements, such as paying an application fee of £259 and proving they have enough personal savings.

The scheme was piloted in 2019 with 2,500 visas issued, but it was rapidly expanded in 2020 and 2021, reaching about 40,000 visas this year. The government has signalled its intention to lift the cap on the number of visas further as part of a review of visas to tackle labour shortages.

However, labour rights experts have warned that the scheme poses significant risks of modern slavery and exploitation for workers, who may come from countries with fewer labour protections than in Europe, such as Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The workers may also incur high debts to cover the costs of flights and visas, which could trap them in debt bondage and make them vulnerable to coercion and abuse.

A recent report by the Association of Labour Providers said that the scheme’s rules urgently need significant changes to prioritise worker protection and prevent exploitation. The report said that the government had not engaged with industry experts in establishing the rules, and that the scheme lacked adequate safeguards, such as ensuring that workers receive contracts in their native language, have access to grievance mechanisms and are not subjected to recruitment fees.

The report also criticised the lack of oversight and enforcement of the scheme by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), which is the watchdog responsible for regulating labour providers and preventing labour exploitation. The GLAA has faced budget cuts and reduced inspections of labour providers in recent years, despite the growing risks of exploitation in the wake of Brexit.

The GLAA is currently investigating allegations that Indonesian workers arriving under the seasonal worker scheme reported shouldering debts of up to £5,000 for one season’s fruit picking in Kent3The workers claimed that they were misled by recruiters about their wages and working hours, and that they faced deductions from their pay for accommodation, transport and food.

The seasonal worker visa scheme has been presented as a solution to the labour crisis in UK agriculture, but it may also create new problems for workers’ rights and welfare. The government needs to ensure that the scheme is designed and implemented in a way that protects workers from exploitation and abuse, and that it is monitored and enforced by an effective and independent regulator.

 How to find a reputable sponsor under seasonal worker visa in UK 

To find a reputable sponsor under the seasonal worker visa scheme, you can follow these steps:

  • Check the official register of licensed sponsors, which lists the organisations that are authorised to sponsor workers on the Worker and Temporary Worker immigration routes. You can filter the list by the category of workers they can sponsor and their rating (A or B). A rating means that the sponsor is complying with their duties, while B rating means that they are working with the Home Office to improve their performance.
  • Look for a sponsor that is an approved scheme operator for the seasonal worker visa. This means that they have been selected by the government to recruit and manage seasonal workers in horticulture or poultry sectors. You can find a list of approved scheme operators in the guidance for sponsors.
  • Contact the sponsor directly or through their website to find out more about their vacancies, requirements, terms and conditions, and application process. You can also ask them about their policies and practices to ensure your welfare and rights under the scheme, such as providing you with a contract in your native language, ensuring your accommodation is safe and comfortable, and not charging you any recruitment fees.
  • Compare different sponsors and choose the one that best suits your needs and expectations. You can also check online reviews or feedback from other workers who have used their services before. Be wary of any sponsor that offers you unrealistic promises, asks you for money upfront, or pressures you to sign anything without reading it carefully.
  • Once you have chosen a sponsor, they will issue you a certificate of sponsorship, which is an electronic record with a unique reference number. You will need this number to apply for your visa online.

How to report exploitation under seasonal worker visa in UK

If you are a seasonal worker in the UK and you experience or witness any exploitation or abuse under the scheme, you can report it to the following authorities:

You can also contact your sponsor, who is responsible for ensuring your welfare and rights under the scheme, or your trade union, if you are a member, for advice and support. However, if you are afraid of retaliation or reprisal from your sponsor or employer, you may prefer to report to an independent authority.

You have the right to work in a safe and fair environment, and to be free from exploitation and abuse. Do not hesitate to report any concerns you have, as this will help protect yourself and other workers.

 

 

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