A Romanian seasonal worker picking strawberries in Kent. This year an initial 45,000 seasonal visas will be granted. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
New rules after some workers on zero-hours contracts last season – but rights bodies say more must be done
Organisations supporting seasonal workers have welcomed the new government guarantee of at least 32 hours paid work a week to people coming to harvest British crops.
In a speech at the National Farmers’ Union conference on Tuesday, the farming minister, Mark Spencer, confirmed changes to the conditions for 2023 visas.
However, workers rights organisations cautioned that the government still needed to do more to protect farm workers from debt bondage.
Last season, the Guardian revealed that Indonesian workers owed as much as £5,000 to unlicensed foreign brokers when they arrived in Britain, despite having work for only a single season. They found themselves initially on zero-hours contracts, with take-home pay of less than £300 a week.
Labour rights experts said the new measures should help prevent low earnings in the UK but that more steps were needed to protect foreign workers from exploitation.
Kate Roberts, the head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation, said: “The introduction of 32 guaranteed paid hours of work per week would be a positive step forward to reduce risk of destitution and debt on the scheme. Given the reports of workers being left without any work at all after only a short period, this commitment must include targeted enforcement, with clear pathways for reporting issues and accessing compensation if contracts are not respected.”
Previously there was a ban on zero-hours contracts for workers who came under the scheme, but it was not always enforced. One farm in Kent did not guarantee hours to workers last season until the Guardian contacted it. Even then, workers’ contracts were increased only to a minimum of 20 hours, making it difficult to repay debts.
Adis Sehic, a policy and research officer at the Work Rights Centre, said the new 32-hour minimum was a “welcome first step” in reducing the potential for exploitation. He said: “We hope that the government can build on this announcement with other constructive developments, including in relation to streamlining the process for workers to request and obtain transfers, and better standards of accommodation for workers.”