Britain’s Seasonal Worker Scheme leaves many Migrants in Debt

Danielle Cohen
By Danielle Cohen Immigration Law Solicitor Linkedin
Danielle Cohen has over 20 years of experience as a lawyer and a reputation for offering professional, honest and expert advice.
3 April 2024

UK farmers have relied on European migrant workers for decades. A UK work visa scheme for migrant farm workers was in place in some form or another between 1945 and 2014 and participants were typically students from European countries. The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was restricted to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens from 2008 and was scrapped all together in 2014. The government considered that the demand could be met by EU workers allowed to come to the UK without visas, particularly from Eastern European countries.

Following reports of labour shortage and concerns about the effect of ending EU free movement a new seasonal worker pilot scheme was announced in 2018. The Migration Advisory Committee said at the time that without such a scheme there would have been the closure of many businesses in the agricultural sector.

The new seasonal worker scheme launched in March 2019 initially had a quota of 2,500 places per year. When the pilot began the workers mainly came from Ukraine and Russia, but today there is a much wider range of nationals represented including from central Asian countries. The Johnson government said that the seasonal worker scheme would be in place at least until the end of 2024 but that quota would be gradually reduced. By contrast the Sunak government increased the quota for 2023 and 2024.

The mechanism

The Seasonal Worker visa is issued by the Home Office and the criteria is set in the immigration rules. The government has authorised a small number of recruitment companies known as ‘Scheme Operators’ to arrange seasonal workers visas. Farmers must hire their overseas workers through those companies and must demonstrate that they are actively trying to recruit UK based workers as well. They cannot sponsor seasonal worker visas directly. Most migrants working on the UK farms take out big loans to cover their upfront costs without knowing whether they will earn enough to pay off their debts. The Financial Times has reported that almost three quarters of the workers recruited through the seasonal workers scheme borrowed an average of more than £1,200 to come to the country and most had little certainty over how much they would earn once they arrived. The Financial Times has suggested that the scheme leaves the workers at risk of debt bondage and exploitation, unable to quit jobs even if they find work and facing living conditions worse than promised. David Neil said the Visa regime put care workers at risk. Neil’s report before he was sacked as the Chief Inspector of Borders said that “the net effect of these mistakes is that the Home Office created a system that invited large numbers of low skilled workers to this country who are at risk from exploitation”. He added that control measures to mitigate risk were totally inadequate with only one compliance officer for every 1,600 employers licenced to sponsor migrant workers.

Legal challenges

The Anti-trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit brought legal challenges to the government seasonal workers visa scheme on the grounds that it breached Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They were seeking compensation for the client’s treatment but also declaration that the scheme breached the client’s Article 4 rights. The Guardian newspaper published an article on 1 April 2024 that suggests that migrant workers vulnerability to exploitation was compounded by the hostile environment, as fears of immigration enforcement action deterred them from reporting mistreatment or exploitation to the authorities. Dr Thiemann of The University of Leicester told The Guardian that it needs to be easier for workers to change employers, so that moving jobs was an actual possibility.