Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme
Yesterday I led a debate on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in Westminster Hall and the encroaching role of Modern Slavery within migrant agricultural work.
Since my election in 2017, I have been proud to play my part in combatting Modern Slavery. In the UK, the number of modern slavery cases rose by 35% from 2016-17, with agriculture as one of the worst sectors.
I called the debate on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to highlight the risks involved. The SAWS was announced last September by the Home Secretary and it offers fruit and vegetable farmers a route to alleviate labour shortages during peak production periods by employing migrant workers for up to 6 months. Whilst the scheme presents a major opportunity for a post-Brexit Britain to demonstrate its preservation of workers’ rights, it also carries the risk of exploitation.
The scheme risks labour abuse and exploitation, with a possible escalation to modern slavery and human trafficking. In particular, workers on this scheme are at risk of debt bondage, a form of modern slavery where an individual is forced to work to pay off an inflated or artificial debt. When seeking low paying jobs in the UK, such as agricultural work, migrants are often forced to seek loans from unreliable lenders at the risk of intimidation and violence.
Around half of victims of forced labour in the private economy are in debt bondage. Further, under the previous iteration of the SAWS which ended in 2013, workers were subject to abuse and reported utter deprivation – because of low hours, bad weather affecting work and instances of being paid less than minimum wage. Therefore, it is crucial to highlight the risks of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in order to avoid the mistakes of the old scheme and to ensure that no system, plan or pilot perpetuates exploitation against migrant workers.
The Government needs to ensure that workers on the scheme will have access to public funds to ensure that workers are not charged for accommodation and fuel if their paid hours fall below an acceptable limit per week. Also, I argued that we need meaningful enforcement and that the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority must be properly resourced in order to ensure that this scheme does not lead to modern slavery.
As our country faces a major turning point, we must set ourselves to a high bar where we lead by example and close the gaps in the system that allow abuse to prevail.