Migrant agricultural workers face absolute poverty while supermarkets profit

New report reveals exploitation and sets out vital reforms

Debt, Migration and Exploitation - report

We need up to 60,000 seasonal workers every year to harvest our food. These workers come almost entirely from outside the UK. Many are on the seasonal worker visa scheme which was introduced to fix the lack of farm labour after Brexit. These workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation, as explored in the Landworkers’ Alliances new report, Debt, Migration and Exploitation, written in collaboration with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, New Economics Foundation, Focus on Labour Exploitation, Sustain and a farmer solidarity network of former migrant seasonal workers.

NEF analysed how the value created in the production, processing and distribution of fruit is shared among those in supply chains. Our research indicates that the average experience of migrant agricultural workers in the UK is absolute poverty. The most shocking aspect of this statement is that this reflects the average experience of seasonal workers, and is not an isolated incident” as the National Farmers Union has claimed.

After accommodation, national insurance, visa and travel costs, migrant workers in horticulture typically earn less than the £236 pounds per week (in 2021 prices) – less than the absolute poverty threshold of £259 per week.

This is because a worker picking soft fruit retains just 8% of the total retail price of the produce. That means when you buy a £2.30 punnet of strawberries in the supermarket, the worker keeps 18p after costs, while the supermarket gets £1.26 of which 14p is profit, the farm gets 50p of which 5p is profit, and the packaging and distribution firm gets 10p.

What makes this worse is that many workers also overpay income tax, which is difficult to reclaim from afar, meaning they lose out ever further.

More significant are unlicensed broker fees that workers pay to third parties in their own countries. These fees – which would be illegal under UK law – can rise as high as £5,000. Broker fees of £1,700 push effective earnings down to just £122 per week, while fees of £5,000 mean that workers can expect to lose money on average.

Our report includes written testimony from Clark McAllister, a researcher and former seasonal worker. He paints a vivid picture of life on a fruit farm. Clark estimates that at least half of the workforce [on the farm] had likely been severely indebted in the recruitment process’. The Guardian and Bureau for Investigative Journalism have also reported many instances of workers taking on high debts, often around £5,000.

The poverty and financial insecurity enables other forms of exploitation. This includes bullying and intimidation, wage theft, reports of breaches of working time regulations, as well as discrimination, accommodation issues and healthcare access obstruction.

While the UK Home Office responded to this report by saying that they always take decisive action where we believe abusive action is taking place or the conditions have not been met”, historically this has not been the case. A report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that the Home Office was told about poor treatment, discrimination, accommodation issues and healthcare access obstruction, and no allegations were investigated by the Home Office, by scheme operators, or by other government organisations”

These workers are the people who spend long days in horrible conditions to put food on our supermarket shelves. They are key workers that keep the UK running, and they deserve a fair share of the wealth they create.

The government should take the following actions:

  1. The Home Office and Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs should move away from restricted visas in the longer term and make significant changes to the seasonal worker visa scheme in the short term.
  2. Debt should not be an unavoidable necessity of scheme participation – we must abolish fees and assess debt risk of the scheme.
  3. Current labour market enforcement is failing. We recommend an adequately funded, worker-led system with a focus that extends beyond a narrow focus on breaches which constitute modern slavery to compliance with standards and UK laws.
  4. Supermarkets capture the lion’s share of the value produced and should pay for higher wages. In our case study they capture 54.7% of the final sale price of a soft fruit and earn £3m of profits. This sum is more than enough to bring all workers on the farm out of poverty.

Download the report

Photo: iStock

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