modern slavery

Seasonal workers in the UK at risk of exploitation

Shutterstock 2261233615

Seasonal visas that allow thousands of people to work in the UK’s agriculture sector each year are a vital part of our farming economy.

The six-month visas ensure there are enough people harvesting British produce so that it goes to consumers, instead of going to waste in the field.

Up to 45,000 workers are recruited and sponsored by labour agencies each year, and whilst the majority of people are paid properly and treated well, many people are targeted in their home countries by unscrupulous gangmasters who promise them ‘good work in the UK’, but then go on to exploit them.

What makes seasonal workers vulnerable?

Seasonal workers who come to the UK often do not speak English fluently, so are at risk of not understanding contracts they are made to sign, and could have difficulty asking for help or leaving a dangerous situation, especially if the locations they are working in are rural or isolated.

Some recruiters are not honest with descriptions of the work expected or accommodation available, so when workers arrive in the UK, the reality does not always meet their expectations. It is then difficult to back out or leave as their visas only allow agricultural work, and they may have incurred debts to travel to the UK.

Workers who are charged high ‘agency fees’ by unscrupulous agents to travel or find work, can find themselves trapped in debt bondage, where they must work to pay back debts before earning anything themselves. This can lead to poverty and homelessness.

If the gang-masters are rogue, then accommodation provided for workers can be of poor quality, dangerous, or unsuitable (such as old caravans, over-crowded housing, or agricultural buildings). They are over-charged for the accommodation and associated bills, with rent coming out of their pay before they receive it. When accommodation is provided alongside the job, then refusal to work in poor conditions could result in the employee losing their job and facing homelessness.

Many migrant workers do not understand working culture or workers’ rights in the UK, so can be made to work extremely long hours with poor protective clothing or equipment.

Temporary Seasonal Working visas are attached to a sponsor, so if the job is lost, then the worker has no right to remain in the UK. They also have no right to seek work in other areas outside agriculture, or apply for any benefits. This makes them vulnerable to being coerced or threatened with ‘losing their jobs’ if they don’t comply with a certain demand. This heavy reliance on their employer makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

If workers have found jobs through a criminal network, it’s likely they are also having other areas of their lives controlled, such as housing, transport to work, and ‘translation’ services around banking and work contracts. They can be made to open new bank accounts which they have no control over, and will be paid low amounts whilst their real wages are diverted into accounts they cannot access.

What is being done to protect victims?

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) was set up by the government to try and regulate the supply of labour into the workforce and set standards on how people must be treated.

All businesses who supply and receive people to use for labour must apply for a licence from the GLAA and adhere to the legal standards set around working hours, health and safety, accommodation, minimum wage, and transport.

The Just Good Work mobile app is available in 11 languages, and is aimed at seasonal workers coming to the UK.

The app provides workers with advice, information and access to help at every stage of their recruitment and employment journey. 

Find out more here: