AG Recruitment loses licence to sponsor migrant agricultural workers
Scandal-hit firm loses right to bring farm workers to the UK. But the government’s reasoning suggests its focus remains on controlling migration, not prioritising labour rights, writes Natalie Sedacca.
AG Recruitment, which had brought more than 1,450 Indonesian nationals to work on farms in the UK last year, has lost its licence as a sponsor of workers on the seasonal workers’ visa (‘SWV’) scheme for agricultural workers. The decision to revoke the licence followed accounts of some workers arriving in the UK with up to £5,000 of debt to brokers and in some cases being sent home only weeks after their arrival in the UK. AG Recruitment was one of four ‘scheme operators’ responsible for recruiting and sponsoring workers on the SWV scheme in 2022.
Originally launched as a pilot in 2019, the scheme has since been repeatedly extended and expanded, with 38,000 visas available and over 26,000 granted in 2022. The government’s assessment of the pilot scheme, published in 2020, showed that 22% of workers reported that they were not treated fairly by farm managers, with issues including racism and nationality-related discrimination. Yet, few changes of substance have been made to address these concerns, with a recent report of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration showing significant concerns about worker welfare.
While the early take up of the scheme was mainly by Ukrainians, its expansion has seen an increasing number of migrants from further afield, with 2,072 visas granted to Nepali nationals and 1,450 to Indonesian nationals in 2022. The conditions of the visa mean that after making this expensive journey, workers have only up to six months to work and earn money in the UK. Apart from separate provisions for Ukrainian nationals following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is not possible to extend the visa past the initial six month period.
Risking super-exploitation: the problem of time-limited, employer sponsored work visas
Early assessments of the SWV scheme, as well as other research on restrictive and time-limited visas like the Overseas Domestic Worker visa, indicate that short-term, non-renewable visas increase risks of exploitation. It is much more difficult to complain about poor or abusive working conditions for those without a right to remain in the UK beyond six months, and practical difficulties arise in taking other steps, such as joining a union or bringing a claim to an Employment Tribunal. If for any reason the worker overstays their visa or works outside its requirements, they become subject to the ‘hostile environment,’ facing criminalisation of their work, detention and deportation.
The visa conditions also limit workers’ freedom to move between jobs. Although changes in 2019 allowed workers to request a transfer, a move is only possible within the operator that originally arranged their job, and that operator can also decline a request – it is not a right to move. This fuels dependency on the employer and can leave workers in poor conditions and / or without sufficient pay, which has been a concern for workers on the SWV. Over 200 Indonesian fruit pickers sought diplomatic help last year for issues that included being allocated too little work, sometimes after arriving late in the season, or being told they were not working fast enough.
The cost involved in the recruitment process is another significant issue. While recruitment fees are illegal, there are reports of such fees being charged in practice regardless. But there are also many other costs involved in migrating that are not illegal, like the £259 visa fee and the cost of travelling to and from the UK. Charging such costs to workers is contrary to International Labour Organisation guidance and to the ‘Employer Pays’ principle. The latter means that an employer should bear all expenses related to recruitment. With workers – particularly those travelling long distances – frequently having to take out loans to cover these costs, the issue is worsened when the short-term visa and / or limited hours of work mean they are unable to make enough money to pay back their debts.
AG Recruitment has not lost license due to worker welfare concerns
Issues of debt appear to be related to the revocation of AG Recruitment’s licence in only an indirect way. Concerns over workers’ rights and welfare do not appear to have been central to the government’s revocation decision.
The reported reason for revocation was non-compliance with a rule in the SWV scheme that at least 97% of workers must return home ‘on time’ at the end of their six-month visa. Starkly, even those who claim asylum – as some Indonesian workers have reportedly done – are counted as breaching this requirement.
The decision over AG Recruitment therefore indicates that regulation of the SWV scheme continues to be focused on controlling migration, rather than taking steps to genuinely guarantee workers’ rights.
Dr Natalie Sedacca is Assistant Professor in Employment Law at Durham University. Alongside NGOs and other academics, she is part of a research-council funded project examining risks of exploitation for migrant agricultural and care workers in the UK.
This blog post was published as part of a partnership with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung – London Office, “Brexit Spotlight and the future of work in the green transition“.
February 14, 2023
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