Study uncovers worsening conditions of migrant workers in UK Agri-Food industry during pandemic

New research by the University of Nottingham has found that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issues faced by migrant workers in the UK Agri-Food (agriculture and food) industry, making them more vulnerable to exploitation.

The university’s Rights Lab surveyed 439 Romanian and Bulgarian migrant workers in seasonal and permanent jobs – a group that experts identify as highly vulnerable to labour exploitation.

The research report also lifts the lid on the circumstances around this group coming to the UK for employment and their working and living conditions. The workers were interviewed from sites across Britain including Kent, Worcestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Greater London during the Covid-19 pandemic from January 2021 to March 2021.

The research was funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (the Modern Slavery PEC), through the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Debt

The report warns that changes in income caused by Covid-19, through furlough or reduced hours, plunged many workers into debt to cover basic expenses.

More than a third (36 per cent) of workers reported reduced working hours, with a quarter (25 per cent) struggling to pay rent and 20 percent having to borrow money. Some workers (18 per cent) reported that they had to borrow money specifically from a friend or a bank, while 4 per cent said they borrowed money from someone they did not know well.

This has increased the debt many workers were already in when arriving to the UK, with the study finding that almost half (43 per cent) of respondents borrowed money before they first came here.

“Debt is a serious problem for many migrant workers, particularly for those who have not been in the country for long and may still be trying to repay an initial debt from when they first travelled to the UK. Issues such as debt; being the only breadwinner in the family, running the risk of experiencing financial instability; as well as lack of knowledge of labour rights, minimal language skills and lack of perceived work alternatives, are some of the reasons why people are more likely to accept exploitative conditions.”

Despite the practice being illegal in Romania, Bulgaria and the UK, 11 per cent of workers paid a fee to an individual, agency or employer to gain their job. The experts suggest that because of the illegality of this act, this may have been under-reported by participants in the study.

Exploitation

The surveyed migrant workers reported worrying levels of exploitative practices in their workplaces.

14 per cent reported emotional abuse or threats, and 11 per cent said they had not been issued with payslips, work contract and P45. A further 10 per cent said they were working below the minimum wage, and 7 per cent reported not being allowed to take holiday, not receiving holiday pay and having wages withheld. 4 per cent reported experiencing physical abuse. 41 per cent of workers said language was the most significant barrier to flagging up problems at the workplace. The second most common reason was fear of losing their job.

Dr Burcu said: “There is a worrying level of exploitative practices common across the industry.

The government must ensure the new Single Enforcement Body is appropriately staffed and resourced to monitor and address the full range of labour violations that can lead to exploitation, and its work and function highly publicised amongst employers and the public.”

“The research makes a strong connection between the increased impact of the Covid pandemic on migrant workers with already existing vulnerabilities, such as precarious contracts, lack of language skills or debts. It is disturbing for consumers buying the produce from the industry. “It shows that we need to focus on addressing systemic factors enabling exploitative practices, for example by improving access to advice for workers in their language and enforcing labour standards more effectively.”

Brexit concerns

Businesses interviewed in the research expressed concern about the labour workforce shortage in light of the new post-Brexit points-based immigration system which limits entry for low-skilled workers. While the seasonal worker visa system is available for the horticulture sector, this imposes a cap of 30,000 visas for seasonal workers. Some in the industry voiced anxiety about businesses with labour shortages potentially turning to employing workers illegally, increasing worker vulnerability to exploitation.

The report authors note one respondent’s quote: “we will not run out of people, we’ll run out of legal people.”

Sobik said: “We need to make sure there are legal ways for businesses to recruit the workforce they need and safe ways for workers to work in these jobs without a risk of being exploited.”

Covid-19

Workers on non-permanent contracts reported more issues than others with 40 per cent of seasonal workers reporting reduced working hours compared to 24 per cent of those on permanent contracts. Although the majority (up to 60 per cent) of workers reported being satisfied with their workplace protections, a quarter were dissatisfied and 15 per cent did not express a position.

The report also highlights practices that increase the risk of cross-contamination amongst workers, such as agencies sending people from one workplace to another at short notice and housing them in shared accommodation, and participants working in food factories reported feeling that there were too many employees in the workplace at once, not observing social distancing.

One worker spoke of their experience: “The agency gave me a job in a warehouse in a different city. I travelled there and I had to check in to a hostel nearby the warehouse where other workers were living…”

“When I was placed in the room that I shared with [..] three Bulgarians” “They were worried about Covid-19 and that they may be placed in quarantine on statutory sick pay […] They were upset. They didn’t want to lose their pay because of me.”

Examples of good practice

The researchers did find good examples of practice, this included some businesses collaborating to develop shared guidelines; topping up furlough schemes so that furloughed employees received full pay; buddying schemes to check on mental and physical wellbeing; and ensuring that workers received an agreed level of hours during the pandemic.

The full research report identifies a comprehensive set of recommendations for the UK Government, enforcement agencies, employers, NGOs, the media and trade unions. The report’s recommendations aim to address issues identified by the research and can be grouped around the following broad themes:

  • Improving access to employment-related advice and support for workers
  • More effective enforcement of labour rights
  • Improving regulation around existing labour rights
  • Building partnerships to increase inclusivity of the labour market.

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