Exclusive: labour rights experts say Liz Truss’s proposals to tackle shortages will put workers at risk
More people will be at risk of modern slavery on British farms if a cap on seasonal worker visas is lifted, labour rights experts have warned.
Liz Truss has signalled that she intends to lift the cap on foreign workers in seasonal agriculture as part of a review of visas to tackle labour shortages.
The proposals come at a time when Britain has no anti-slavery commissioner to scrutinise modern slavery risks in government policies.
Sara Thornton, who was commissioner until April this year, said the government “needs to deal with the potential for worker abuse and the danger of debt bondage” before expanding the seasonal worker scheme further.
Thornton, now a professor of modern slavery policy at the University of Nottingham, added: “We need to be really careful. I understand why they want to do this but these workers will be vulnerable.
“We need to ensure that they’re not subjected to recruitment fees, we need to ensure that they don’t come here in debt bondage and that they’re able to have a contract in their own language and to [report concerns].”
The seasonal worker scheme has already been rapidly expanded, with about 40,000 visas issued this year, up from just 2,500 in its pilot in 2019.
Brexit and the war in Ukraine mean workers are being recruited from more distant countries that have fewer labour protections than in Europe. Experts say the high cost of flights and visas also increase the risk of debt bondage even in situations where no other exploitative fees are charged.
The Guardian revealed last month that Indonesian workers arriving under the seasonal worker scheme reported shouldering debts of up to £5,000 for one season’s fruit picking in Kent. A Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) investigation is under way.
The proposed expansion to the scheme comes as the watchdog tasked with overseeing it has had its budget cut and its inspections of current labour providers are at an all-time low.
The GLAA had completed just 12 inspections of its more than 1,000 licence holders to check for compliance by August this year, the Guardian has learned. It took an average of more than 10 months to complete compliance inspections of labour providers in the last financial year, missing its own targets.
Despite the growing risks of exploitation in the wake of Brexit, the GLAA’s overall budget of just over £7m has shrunk by £300,000 in the last five years – before inflation is factored in. It began this financial year with a budget deficit of £500,000, which it said presented “a significant challenge on our ability to deliver against our strategic plan”, adding that it might need to “review staff volumes”.
Andy Hall, a researcher who specialises in investigating forced labour in supply chains in Asia, said: “If the scheme is rapidly expanded, the modern slavery risk really increases, particularly the risk of debt bondage. There needs to be a simultaneous increase in regulation and enforcement if they’re going to increase the number of workers because even now the scheme is failing to protect them.”
Kate Roberts, head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation, said that Britain lacked options for independent monitoring or compensation, pointing out that the GLAA is clear that it “does not routinely inspect farms or have jurisdiction over overseas recruitment”.
Roberts added: “There is already extensive evidence of workers paying illegal recruitment fees to enter the scheme, putting them at risk of debt bondage. Increasing the number of workers recruited on to the scheme without first addressing funding and resourcing issues within labour market enforcement will mean that even more workers are likely to be exploited.”
The GLAA said that the 12 compliance inspections logged by August did not include “day-to-day welfare visits to labour providers”, ongoing inspections, or those that have gone to appeal. The watchdog has also faced a rise in the number of inspections needed to grant new licence applications.
A spokesperson said: “A significant amount of work has been carried out to speed up and improve the time it takes to complete our compliance inspections. The average time taken to complete a compliance inspection in the first quarter this year has been 87 working days, down substantially on the 229 figure from last year.”
A government spokesperson said: “The seasonal-worker route has been running for three years and each year improvements have been made to stop labour exploitation and clamp down on poor work conditions while people are in the UK.
We take migrant welfare extremely seriously.”