A troubled guest farm worker system in the U.K.

I recently posted on discussion in the U.S. about a guest worker program, the Seasonal Workers Pilot. The United Kingdom introduced such a program which has horrible results, as reported by the Financial Times. Excerpts:

Two labour providers, Concordia and Pro-Force, are permitted to recruit people from places such as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to work in edible horticulture on strict six-month visas. The pilot started in 2019 with an annual quota of 2,500 workers. It was extended to 10,000 workers in 2020 and to 30,000 workers in 2021, with an additional two recruitment agencies set to be added.

The workers on the farm that employed Russia [one worker from Russia], Castleton Fruit in north-east Scotland, were on zero-hour contracts, which do not guarantee any work, and were paid for the amount of fruit they picked rather than by the hour. Under the law, pickers on this “piece rate” system must be “topped up” to the minimum wage of £8.72 [$12.10] an hour if they have not picked enough to earn this amount. Because of this, the supervisors would check everyone’s work every two hours, and the workers who had not picked fast enough would be sent back to the caravans for the rest of the day, unable to earn any more money.

Between March 2020 and February 2021, Focus on Labour Exploitation, an NGO, investigated the experience of workers in Scotland on the pilot programme, in a project part-funded by the Scottish government. FLEX surveyed 84 farm workers and interviewed 62 on 12 different farms, of which 39 were on the scheme.

The researchers found that more than half were on piece rates, and three-quarters felt like they were always or usually being pushed to do more work than was possible in the time they had. Two-thirds reported receiving threats of loss of work, 60 per cent said the information they were given about earnings before travelling proved inaccurate, and a similar proportion said they were refused transfers to other farms.

A Home Office minister stated in a written parliamentary answer in 2019 that “the scheme operators are not permitted to offer zero-hours contracts to workers” but the Financial Times has seen worker contracts that do not guarantee any hours, including one titled “Terms and conditions of zero hours employment”.

Research suggests that, over the course of decades, UK farmers have intensified these jobs in response to the rising minimum wage and the pressure from powerful supermarkets for flexibility, speed and low prices. For example, according to British Summer Fruits, an industry body, government data suggest that prices paid to farms for strawberries barely rose between 2008 and 2018. The UK has some of the lowest food prices in western Europe.


 

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