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Committee Hears of Appalling Conditions Suffered by Seasonal Workers as Part of Government Scheme

Following a series of investigations by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Vice World News, the Horticultural Committee heard testimony from individuals who have spent time working on the farms

British strawberries are harvested by seasonal workers from overseas. Photo: Simon Dack/Alamy

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The testimony of three seasonal workers – Sybil Msezane, Andrey Okhrimenko and Vadim Sardov – to the House of Lords’ Horticultural Committee paints a damning picture of the system.

All three described similar experiences. They confirmed accounts in prior reports of exploitative treatment, wage theft, abuse, and poor living and working conditions. In many instances, they said, complaints were ignored – even in cases of sexual harassment.

Sybil Msezane, a seasonal worker from South Africa, spoke of her cousin, who after being sexually harassed by another employee, had tried to go through the “proper” channels and that “even with recordings, even with evidence, nothing was done”.

“She was made to be the person who was in the wrong, because the person harassing her was a worker who had worked on the farm for more than 10 years, and was always a returning worker,” she told the committee. She spoke of how, if you were a repeat worker, “the treatment was very different”. Her cousin left the country afterwards. 

During the proceedings, Msezane described how workers were subjected to dehumanising language, referred to by numbers as opposed to their actual names. She told the committee: “I don’t think the farmers knew we existed outside of the weight of the fruit and vegetables that we picked on a daily basis. We weren’t viewed as humans, we were more chattel on the farms.”

Her testimony was expanded upon by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporter Emiliano Mellino, who confirmed that these were “not isolated incidents”.

During its investigations, shocking mistreatment of workers was uncovered in more than 20 UK farms in 2022 – where one employee, Angel, described being assigned the number “eight-seven-five”, used by her supervisors when screaming at her to work faster or punishing her. One of the farms, Dearnsdale, told TBIJ that “we do refer to members of staff by their numbers, however, this is not to degrade the individual but purely on a business need basis as is standard in the industry”.

But the picture painted by the three workers to the committee is one of an abusive and exploitative environment, with employees under heavy pressure to achieve targets in harsh conditions, with little to no training, and penalised if they fall behind.

The committee heard that if workers didn’t “hit targets in the first three hours of the day, they were then refused work for the rest of the day” – therefore unable to earn as a punishment, on top of being insulted and underpaid. 

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Andrey Okhrimenko, from Kazakhstan, described how during his entire employment, “we received threats”.

“If you don’t pick fast enough, if you don’t comply with quality or you do something wrong, they don’t like something that you do, they said they will cancel your visa – ‘we will send you back to your home country’ – or apply reductions to your wages as disciplinary measures,” he said. “And all those things happened every single day during the meetings before work or during the breaks.”

He told the committee that the farm he was on operated a “strike” policy, deducting 30 minutes’ time from their wages for each strike they received. Previous reporting uncovered how workers were being severely underpaid, where legally they must receive a minimum of £10.10 per hour. They were also being charged for things like electricity (which is legal) and paying for their own gloves and equipment. Under the scheme, workers should not have been charged for anything required to undertake their roles. 

Vadim Sardov, also from Kazakhstan, described how he had to sleep in a caravan during winter in which there was “no central heating”. He could “use only electrical heaters and we also had to pay for electricity. This place was full of cracks and holes… I had to sleep in a jacket because sometimes the temperature was the same as outside, inside the caravan”.

He went on to describe how women from some caravans would be forced to sleep cuddled together because of the extreme conditions. He shared his caravan with three others.

Sybil Msezane described the physical accommodation on the farms she stayed in as all being caravans, sometimes with up to seven people in them, with both men and women from different places sleeping in what should have been communal living areas.

Emiliano Mellino explained how employees were not only be forced to buy their own electric heaters to stay warm but also how farm owners could charge them £65-£80 per week, which for a caravan of four would mean well over £1,000 a month to live in substandard conditions. Andrey described being moved from a caravan to a hostel at one point, where “everything was falling apart”, with mouldy walls, broken pipes, and water leaking from the toilet. 

Vadim Sardov was told by the farm owner at points that, if he didn’t like staying where he was, “you can get back to your home country” and that “they can easily change us” – with his employer describing how he could call up their sponsor (AG Recruitment) which would “send him new people instead of all of us”. He told the committee that the manager knew they “couldn’t get another job” and so used that to manipulate workers like him into complying with the conditions, telling them: “I’m trying to run a business here.”

According to the testimony, the system for complaints – for those confident enough to make them – was also deeply flawed.

Many workers do not know who the HR manager is. More than half of the 50 people TBIJ spoke to said they had issues with making complaints or that complaints went unaddressed. The best outcome that could be hoped for was people speaking to a sponsor and then just being transferred to another farm – which failed to address the underlying issues. 

The initial TBIJ investigation reported how complaints had been made to recruiters but that these had gone unanswered. Sometimes, when staff had been dismissed from a farm, they also experienced difficulty getting transfers or had requests refused by recruiters.

Additionally, as described by Mellino, there was a clear conflict of interest built into the relationship between employer and sponsor itself, as the scheme operators make their money through the farms paying them for each worker they supply. So the worker is supposed to complain to the operator about the farm, which is ultimately the customer of the scheme operator.

The committee heard that some employers would also underpay staff and that many had incurred huge fees to come and work here – sometimes taking out high-interest loans from third-party money-lenders, before being charged more by the farms themselves, through bank accounts opened on behalf of the workers by the employers. 

Andrey Okhrimenko told the committee: “We received our wages to our bank accounts, which usually the farm opened up for us. They charged a lot of fees for everything you do, if you want to change your money or you want to make a transfer or you want to withdraw some money or you want to send it online, it was just a rip-off.”

Vadim Sardov said his “experience was the same”. But both men knew enough from others who had gone through similar experiences to then open UK bank accounts. 

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Nearly 35,000 migrant workers travelled to the UK on a six-month seasonal worker visa last year. The Government has already said it is planning to grant 45,000 seasonal visas in 2024 – a figure which could be increased by 10,000 if necessary to boost economic growth, as British farmers continue to struggle to find enough workers due to tougher post-Brexit immigration rules. 

In May, a coalition of civil society organisations wrote to Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, pointing to the risks and failures of the scheme, stating that “it is insufficient to delegate tackling abuse to private sector labour agencies: the Government has an obligation to provide effective bilateral relationships, a clear framework for recruiters, and enforcement to ensure compliance”.

For Mellino, of TBIJ, there are two problems with the current system.

Firstly, he believes the UK needs stronger labour enforcement. The UK has around a quarter of the amount of labour inspectors a country should have, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Secondly, he expressed a need to de-link labour enforcement and immigration enforcement, to stop immigration enforcement from being used as a threat to workers. The journalist gave examples of people who were threatened with immigration enforcement, or in some instances actually marked down as absconders, when in fact they were not. 

Speaking of recommendations for the scheme, Sybil Msezane told the committee “I think it’s important to cut out the middle man” – asking that people be allowed to apply directly to an employer and not rely on the help of a third party which uses that employer as the ultimate customer.  

“Employers must provide proper living and working conditions, you know, no one is asking about 5-star hotels, everything just has to be decent,” Vadim Sardov added.

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