Government expanded visa scheme weeks after UN raised alarm over people trafficking

Experts wrote to David Cameron in March warning that workers on a UK farm could be victims of modern slavery

Some migrant farm workers on a UK government visa scheme were allegedly trafficked to the country, according to United Nations human rights experts.

In a letter sent to David Cameron, the UK’s foreign secretary, four UN special rapporteurs said the government knew that workers were at risk of exploitation and its oversight of the farms had been “insufficient”. Weeks after receiving the letter, the government extended the scheme until 2029.

The letter detailed how migrant workers have reportedly been deceived about working and living conditions, and had faced abuses including discrimination, mistreatment, wage theft, low salaries and punishment for not meeting targets.

The laws and practices around the visa scheme made seasonal workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation, the experts said. They added that systemic change was needed.

“Given the conditions reported to us, we are concerned that [regulatory] entities do not appear to have taken timely and adequate action,” read the letter, which was sent in March and made public in mid-May.

Labour MP John McDonnell said overseas workers are among the most exploited people in the farming sector. He called for urgent protections for them.

“[Migrant workers’] exploitation and the appalling treatment they receive at the hands of often brutal, profiteering employers verges on modern-day slavery,” he said. “We urgently need comprehensive, strong legislation and enforcement to tackle this stain on our economy.”

Much of the UN experts’ letter focused on allegations of underpayment and poor working conditions at Haygrove Ltd, one of the UK’s biggest fruit producers, and Fruitful Jobs, one of the government-licensed recruiters for the visa scheme.

Last year, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reported allegations that Latin American workers employed at Haygrove had not been paid for all the hours they had worked, had been punished by being denied work and had faced bullying on the farm. One person had been physically assaulted by a supervisor, colleagues said.

About 90 Haygrove workers staged a wildcat strike and some were told by the managing director of Fruitful Jobs that if they continued to protest, their visas would be revoked.

Haygrove told TBIJ at the time that it rejected all allegations of wrongdoing in the “strongest terms” and had found no evidence of any mistreatment by supervisors. Fruitful Jobs said the managing director had been trying to resolve the issues with the workers.

The Home Office believes that four of the workers at Haygrove could have been victims of modern slavery, according to the UN experts’ letter.

They wrote that, based on the information they had received, these people would fall under the definition of victims of trafficking.

The experts also sent letters to Haygrove and Fruitful Jobs. They asked for clarification on what was being done to protect workers and called for compensation for those who had been victims of modern slavery.

The UN officials said they had received reports that Haygrove had promised people future work in order to “prevent them from reporting the labour exploitation suffered at the farm”.

The workers had been referred to the government’s scheme designed to support modern slavery victims, known as the national referral mechanism (NRM). In some cases, though, they were not receiving help with housing, mental health, healthcare or repatriation, according to the special rapporteurs.

One of the workers, who subsequently went to London, has “reportedly been deceived and abused by UK citizens who have employed him for small jobs without paying him”, the letter said.

In a response published last week, the government said it would not comment on individual allegations. It said licensed recruiters, known as “scheme operators”, are responsible for placing workers on farms and ensuring their welfare. Failure to comply with rules could result in the recruiters losing their sponsor licence.

The government also acknowledged that decision making on the NRM was slow, but said a new compliance team had been established to monitor the seasonal worker visa.

It said 1,116 workers were interviewed at 144 farms in the 2022-23 season. That figure represents a decline in the number of workers interviewed at each farm, from an average of 44 in 2021 and 2022 to just under eight, according to inspection reports seen by TBIJ.

After being contacted by TBIJ, Haygrove and Fruitful Jobs sent separate responses to the UN letter. Haygrove chairman Angus Davison wrote that the allegations were “materially incorrect” and gave a “false impression” that there were systemic issues “akin to labour exploitation or modern slavery” in how the company treated its workers in the UK.

Nearly 90 workers from Chile, Peru and Bolivia joined the unofficial strike at Haygrove

He said that workers are fully informed about the terms and conditions of their employment and are paid at least the national living wage, with legal deductions for accommodation offsets and wage advances only.

Davison said that Haygrove would be paying workers for the time they spent travelling between company sites as “a goodwill gesture” in 2024.

He said the farm offered future employment opportunities “not [as] a means to silence complaints but to provide continued work for those who wish to return”.

Responding to the UN special rapporteurs, Fruitful Jobs said it “strongly refutes any allegations”. It said its recruitment process was open, transparent and complied with minimum wage legislation. It said it took the issues around the experience of workers at Haygrove seriously and works closely with farms to provide workers with a formal complaints mechanism.

The seasonal worker visa scheme was introduced in 2019 to address labour shortages in the agricultural sector, which were expected to be exacerbated by the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The scheme has been rapidly expanded from an initial 2,500 workers coming in the first year, to more than 30,000 in 2023. This month, the government announced that the scheme would continue to be extended until 2029.

The letter was signed by Tomoya Obokata, the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gehad Madi, the special rapporteur on human rights of migrants, and Siobhán Mullally, the special rapporteur on trafficking in persons. It was also signed by Robert McCorquodale, the chair-rapporteur of the working group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

Reporters: Emiliano Mellino and Holly Bancroft
Bureau Local editor: Gareth Davies
Deputy editors: Katie Mark and Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Emily Goddard
Fact checker: Ero Partsakoulaki

Our Bureau Local project has several funders. None of our funders has any influence over our editorial decisions or output