This month, British supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose agreed to pay for audits on British farms to inspect the conditions of foreign seasonal workers and combat abuse. They caved to pressure from investors, worried about their exposure to potential abuses in supply chains.
Fruit pickers come to the UK through the seasonal workers scheme; a special visa program allowing them to work in the country for six months. Until recently, they came mainly from Romania and Ukraine, but war has driven recruiters elsewhere. People from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Indonesia and Nepal have arrived in their numbers.
The scheme has boomed in recent years, but oversight hasn’t kept up. In the UK recruitment fees are illegal, but many operators abroad ignore the rule and convince the workers to pay high sums of money to get into the scheme. To limit the potential for debt bondage, British operators stopped recruiting from Asian countries. But many are already on a two-year contract, or back home and in huge amounts of debt.
And the risk of exploitation endures in the UK. Because the operators have both an enforcement and a protection role, workers don’t feel comfortable speaking up. They live and work in often remote locations, where their employer is also their landlord, and this further impairs their options.