UK ministers pressed ahead with seasonal farm workers visa for migrants despite UN experts’ warning

UN experts raised serious concerns about the risk of exploitation of migrant workers on UK farms with the Foreign Office just weeks before the visa scheme was extended.

Migrant fruit pickers who come to the UK to work on farms are being saddled with debts before they arrive. Some have reported exploitation on the farms, including punishment for not meeting targets, discrimination, and poor living and working conditions.

The workers pay middlemen who help them get jobs through the government’s seasonal worker scheme, which has been extended to 2029.

In a letter sent in March to the foreign secretary David Cameron, and only recently made public, four UN special rapporteurs expressed concerns about reports of abuse taking place through the scheme.

They said that, while the UK government recognises that migrants on the seasonal worker visa “may be more vulnerable and open to exploitation than other workers”, the oversight of the farms has been “insufficient”.

They raised a number of individual cases, which they claimed “illustrate the general, underlying shortcomings in ensuring decent working and living conditions of migrant workers in the country”.

The UN special rapporteurs criticised regulators the Health and Safety Executive and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority for not appearing to “have taken timely and adequate action”.

They criticised the way the visa scheme was set up, which the experts said was “stopping many workers from reporting exploitation”.

Four UN special rapporteurs expressed concerns about reports of abuse taking place through the UK’s seasonal worker visa scheme (The Independent)
Four UN special rapporteurs expressed concerns about reports of abuse taking place through the UK’s seasonal worker visa scheme (The Independent)

The special rapporteurs, who are the UN’s independent experts on human rights issues, told the government they had similar concerns about the health and care worker visa.

In early May, environment secretary Steve Barclay extended the seasonal worker visa for five years to 2029, citing the labour shortages in the farming industry.

A total of 43,000 visas are available in the horticulture sector in 2025, with another 2,000 visas for poultry, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said.

Labour MP John McDonnell said urgent work is needed to stop exploitation in the farming sector.

He said: “Migrant workers are the most exploited section of what has become known as the precariat. Their exploitation and the appalling treatment they receive at the hands of often brutal profiteering employers verges on modern day slavery. We urgently need comprehensive strong legislation and enforcement to tackle this stain on our economy.”

Much of the UN letter focused on allegations of underpayment and poor working conditions at Haygrove Ltd, one of the UK’s biggest fruit producers, and the recruitment of workers by Fruitful Jobs, one of the government-licensed recruiters for the seasonal worker visa scheme.

In response to the UN letter, Fruitful Jobs said it could not comment on the concerns rapporteurs had with the wider industry, but refuted any allegations against Fruitful Jobs. It made clear that Fruitful Jobs does not request or facilitate any form of payment from migrant workers for recruitment services.

Haygrove also disputed the allegations, saying that it treats workers well, adhering to all standards. Haygrove said that in a recent Home Office audit no evidence of wrongdoing, labour exploitation or modern slavery was found.

Last year, a Bureau of Investigative Journalism investigation spoke to Latin American workers, employed at Haygrove, who claimed they were not paid for all the hours they worked, were punished by being denied work, and had faced bullying on the farm. One person said they were physically assaulted by a supervisor.

Haygrove, which has fruit-growing farms in the UK, South Africa and Portugal, has denied all the allegations. It refuted any allegation of bullying or discrimination, and said pickers were paid for all the hours that they worked. It said the company was not aware of the alleged incident with the supervisor as no formal complaint was raised but that it would investigate.

In the letter, the UN special rapporteurs said the Home Office decided that there were reasonable grounds to conclude that four workers employed by Haygrove could have been victims of modern slavery. In all four cases a final decision is pending. The special rapporteurs wrote that based on the information they received, some of the individuals would fall under the definition of victims of trafficking.

Haygrove said the UN experts’ views “give the false impression that there are serious and systemic issues with the way in which Haygrove’s seasonal workers are treated in the UK”, adding that it refutes such allegations “in the strongest terms”.

Haygrove said the reported concerns related to an isolated incident of discontent amongst workers in July last year. It added that, while the company recognised some workers on UK farms paid high fees to secure employment, this was not the case for workers recruited by Fruitful Jobs or working on Haygrove’s farms.

In its response, the government said it would not comment on ongoing investigations and that those who are “interested in the fair and unbiased application of the law” should “refrain from unhelpful public commentary or speculation”. It added that licensed recruiters known as “scheme operators” are responsible for placing workers on farms and ensuring their welfare. Failure to comply with rules “could” result in these recruiters losing their licences, it said.

The seasonal worker visa scheme was launched in 2019 to address labour shortages in the agricultural sector, which were expected to be exacerbated by the UK’s exit from the European Union. The scheme was rapidly expanded from an initial 2,500 workers coming in the first year, to more than 30,000 last year. Earlier this month the government announced that the scheme would be extended until 2029.

Robyn Phillips, director of operations at the Human Trafficking Foundation, said addressing the exploitation of workers on certain visas, such as the seasonal worker visa, health and care visa and overseas domestic worker visa “must be a key consideration for a future government”.

The letter was signed by the special rapporteurs on contemporary forms of slavery, on the human rights of migrants, and on trafficking in persons, as well as the chair-rapporteur of the working group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

A government spokesperson said: "The seasonal worker route has been running for five years, and each year improvements have been made to stop exploitation and clamp down on poor working conditions while people are in the UK.

“We have a set of published requirements for organisations holding a sponsorship licence which make clear that those who benefit directly from migration are responsible for ensuring the immigration system is not abused. We will always take decisive action where we believe abusive practices are taking place or the conditions of the seasonal workers route are not met.”