In September last year, 21-year-old engineering student Roman Kukharchuk packed his bags and prepared to leave Russia. He was heading to Scotland as part of a UK government pilot scheme, where he would work on a farm that supplies strawberries and raspberries to British supermarkets like Tesco and Marks and Spencer.
Kukharchuk arrived in a country that was grappling with a difficult question: whether it could ever learn to cope without people like him.
Since Brexit, the stated aim of the UK government has been to wean the economy off a dependence on low-paid migrants. But employers in some sectors — horticulture is a good example — say they simply cannot get enough Britons to do the work. A “Pick for Britain’‘ campaign last summer, aimed at persuading locals to pick fruit and vegetables, demonstrated the problem: of the people placed on farms by one major agency, fewer than 4 per cent remained on assignment by the end of the season.
Two labour providers, Concordia and Pro-Force, are permitted to recruit people from places such as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to work in edible horticulture on strict six-month visas. The pilot started in 2019 with an annual quota of 2,500 workers. It was extended to 10,000 workers in 2020 and to 30,000 workers in 2021, with an additional two recruitment agencies set to be added.
Some commentators have concluded that Britons lack the work ethic for tough outdoor jobs. “What is it that we are feeding our people wrong? Is there something that we are doing in school?” asked Derek Thomas, a Conservative MP, in a recent select committee hearing. In another hearing, David Camp, chief executive of the Association of Labour Providers, said there was an unrealistic view of what fruit picking was like. “I was calling it the ‘I can come for two hours on a Tuesday afternoon and bring my wicker basket’ mentality.”
Kukharchuk, in contrast, had expected hard work and long hours paid at the UK minimum wage. But he discovered that those expectations were wrong too. The problem wasn’t too much work, he says, but being deprived of it as a consequence of not meeting demanding productivity targets.
The workers on the farm that employed him, Castleton Fruit in north-east Scotland, were on zero-hour contracts, which do not guarantee any work, and were paid for the amount of fruit they picked rather than by the hour. Under the law, pickers on this “piece rate” system must be “topped up” to the minimum wage of £8.72 an hour if they have not picked enough to earn this amount. Because of this, the supervisors would check everyone’s work every two hours, and the workers who had not picked fast enough would be sent back to the caravans for the rest of the day, unable to earn any more money.
Some weeks, Kukharchuk says, he was sent to the caravan so often he only earned about £180 to £200, from which he also had to pay the farm £57.40 a week for the caravan he shared with three others. The farm would also inspect the caravans weekly and charge workers £10 if it found “disorder/a mess”.
Dzmitry, a 24-year-old from Belarus on the seasonal workers pilot who does not want to use his real name, describes each day on his Scottish farm as an endurance race. You might survive for two hours, or four or even six, he says, before finally becoming too exhausted to sustain the pace required of you and being sent back to the caravan. The piece rates were always changing. His friends were struggling too, unable to match the productivity of those with several years of experience. He asked to be transferred to a different farm but was refused. He was particularly worried because he had borrowed about £850 back home to pay for his £244 visa, travel and other costs. “You’re telling me I’m a bad worker but you’re not letting me move farm,” he recalls.
Workers from elsewhere in Europe who travelled to the UK under free movement before the end of 2020 could change jobs freely. But those on the seasonal workers pilot — from this year the main way for migrant farm workers to enter the country — can only change roles with the help of the same agencies that brought them over, and cannot seek work in other industries.
In September, two months after he arrived, Dzmitry typed a message on his phone to a charitable group of human rights lawyers. “We have borrowed a lot of money to come here, we passed long distance, left our relatives, not to get this. We came to work but we can’t work, earn money, we can’t save money and help our families. Sometimes there is a feeling that we can’t prove anything, that no one will help us.”
Kukharchuk and Dzmitry were eventually dismissed for failure to meet targets. Kukharchuk could not leave immediately because of Covid-related border restrictions, so was allowed to stay and work on the farm until he could go home.
Between March 2020 and February 2021, Focus on Labour Exploitation, an NGO, investigated the experience of workers in Scotland on the pilot programme, in a project part-funded by the Scottish government. FLEX surveyed 84 farm workers and interviewed 62 on 12 different farms, of which 39 were on the scheme.
The researchers found that more than half were on piece rates, and three-quarters felt like they were always or usually being pushed to do more work than was possible in the time they had. Two-thirds reported receiving threats of loss of work, 60 per cent said the information they were given about earnings before travelling proved inaccurate, and a similar proportion said they were refused transfers to other farms.
Some workers told the researchers they had resorted to buying boxes of produce from the fastest pickers, so that they could meet the farm’s target and be allowed to continue working. The workers could choose to go home early, but many had borrowed money back home to pay the visa and travel costs, sometimes from black market lenders. FLEX also found that workers struggled to get assistance from their recruiting agencies or the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the UK regulator which aims to protect exploited workers. The GLAA has 46 investigators in its enforcement teams, with one investigator and one inspector based in Scotland.
FLEX recommended removing the £244 visa fee for workers, guaranteeing them a minimum amount of work and income and increasing resources for labour market enforcement, among other measures.
A Home Office minister stated in a written parliamentary answer in 2019 that “the scheme operators are not permitted to offer zero-hours contracts to workers” but the Financial Times has seen worker contracts that do not guarantee any hours, including one titled, “Terms and conditions of zero hours employment”. Castleton Fruit, which employed Kukharchuk, said the government statement was incorrect, and there were no stipulations against zero-hours contracts. The Home Office declined to answer the FT’s question on the issue.
While the FLEX research focused solely on Scotland, some workers on English farms have struggled with similar issues. Florina Tudose, advocacy programme manager at the East European Resource Centre in London, says the organisation helped at least seven people who were already in the UK under free movement find roles through Concordia on farms close to the capital last year. They had lost their jobs in the pandemic and were at risk of homelessness.
“Except for one young guy, all of them came back to us with the same story . . . they were on zero-hours contracts, and lots of the days they were sent back to their trailers because they didn’t meet the targets,” she says.
“We always knew the farming industry could be very exploitative, but in the first lockdown we thought that might be a better solution than being homeless,” she says. “Once a week they have this meeting where they tell the ones who received three warnings, or something like that, ‘you need to pack your bags and go because you’re not making your targets’.”
Castleton Fruit, the farm where Kukharchuk was placed, says it has supplied the UK’s major supermarkets for more than 20 years and is regularly audited by independent auditors, retailers, the Gangmaster Licensing Authority and the Health and Safety Executive. It says the FT has spoken to “such a small sample” of its 1,000 strong workforce that it “cannot be portrayed as representative”. It adds that 70 per cent of workers in 2020 were EU workers with free movement of labour and that more than 50 per cent of staff are returnees. “If we were not good employers offering good rates of pay, then we would not have a workforce.”
The farm says piece rates are set at a level “to allow everyone to earn at least the minimum wage. However, at times some people fall short of this and we must make up their wages to the minimum wage; we do this without exception. As a business model, it is not sustainable or fair to the workers who are earning the minimum wage to make up the wages of underperforming employees for a full day’s work. Therefore, productivity is checked periodically during the day and anyone not meeting the minimum standards must finish work at that point.”
Workers are given seven days’ training to learn how to meet the targets and the opportunity to retrain. The farm also says earnings for individual workers could vary from £200 to over £800 a week, more than double the minimum wage, depending on productivity.
The farm acknowledges that last year some workers “were arriving without some of the correct information” and that this year it has organised “virtual face-to-face interviews” with applicants before arrival in conjunction with Concordia to make sure they were fully briefed on what to expect. It confirms it inspects caravans and can charge workers, but only if they do not “respect and look after the equipment and property we provide”. It says it does not control the transfer system to other farms, which is managed by Concordia.
Simon Bowyer, chief executive of Concordia, which is a registered charity, says the workers FLEX surveyed do not “represent the experiences of the majority of workers on UK farms”. He says Concordia, which audits all farms and only works with ones which “uphold our ethical standards”, allows workers to transfer to a different farm “wherever possible” and that, “Through our network of overseas agents, all workers are informed of their rights and the responsibilities when securing work on a UK farm, as well as their contractual obligations.” He adds that the charity supports workers throughout their placements and investigates all complaints, but did not respond to questions on individual cases.
UK fruit picking in numbers
Migrant workers on the UK’s seasonal workers pilot. Four agencies are permitted to provide workers
Workers at Castleton Fruit who were returnees in 2020, says the farm. It employs about 1,000 workers
Weekly wage range Castleton Fruit says its workers can earn. Caravan hire costs them £57.40 a week
Iain Brown, chair of National Farmers Union Scotland’s horticulture working group, says migrant workers are a “vital asset” to Scotland’s farmers and that, with a return rate of about 70 per cent, most farms are “attractive and rewarding”. But he adds that some workers’ experiences are “not acceptable” and the FLEX report “highlighted many flaws in the UK-wide scheme, particularly the debt burden placed on migrant workers and poor or false information” and that this “resulted in some cases to people feeling trapped”.
He says NFU Scotland would prefer farms to be able to recruit directly, and that a “better option” for farmers would be to offer contracts “with an element of guaranteed hours which would give the workers the assurance that they will earn enough to repay their debts”.
The UK Home Office declined to answer eight specific questions, but says it “takes the safety and wellbeing of seasonal workers extremely seriously”. It says the farms used in the scheme are vetted and that workers should only be placed with farms that “pay the national minimum wage and provide suitable living and working conditions”.
The Scottish government says the FLEX report’s findings were “concerning and highlight the need for an urgent, comprehensive and effective response.” It says it would do “all it can to address the relevant recommendations” from the research and would write to the UK immigration minister to call on the UK government to “implement the recommendations urgently [and] engage regularly and meaningfully with the Scottish government, FLEX and Scottish agriculture sector going forward”.
The GLAA says it is “not the lead agency” for farm inspections under the seasonal workers pilot but plays a supporting role to the UK Visas and Immigration service.
Tesco says it takes all allegations of poor working conditions “extremely seriously” and is “urgently investigating”. It adds: “Tesco is committed to ensuring the rights of people working in our supply chains are respected and upheld.”
An M&S spokesperson says: “We take the welfare of workers in our supply chain extremely seriously and we are investigating these claims with our suppliers.”
The UK is far from alone in turning to migrant workers at harvest time, especially because the season can last between six and eight months -neither short enough to be a summer role for students nor long enough to be a permanent job. Canada, Germany, New Zealand and others have a version of the UK’s scheme. Indeed, the UK operated a similar scheme which began after the second world war and lasted until 2013. Advocates say that, when managed well, they can be a “win, win, win”: farmers have access to labour, customers enjoy reasonably priced local produce and migrant workers earn better money than they could at home.
But the experience of some of the workers on the UK’s pilot scheme highlights a problem. These jobs have, in some cases, become so demanding and insecure that not only are they off-putting to locals, who could work in a café or supermarket for the same money, but even some migrants from poor countries see them as a bad deal.
Research suggests that, over the course of decades, UK farmers have intensified these jobs in response to the rising minimum wage and the pressure from powerful supermarkets for flexibility, speed and low prices. For example, according to British Summer Fruits, an industry body, government data suggest that prices paid to farms for strawberries barely rose between 2008 and 2018. The UK has some of the lowest food prices in western Europe.
“Everyone’s looking for someone to blame for the situation, but that’s not quite some evil person somewhere, it’s more that the system pushes us down this route,” says Alan Manning, an economics professor at the London School of Economics and former chair of the independent Migration Advisory Committee which advises government.
He believes that, in order to redesign the jobs so Britons would do them, food prices would have to rise so much that consumers or supermarkets would probably choose imports instead. Robots might do the work eventually, though most farmers say the technology is still years away. Another option would be to keep the seasonal worker scheme but make it fairer.
“It’s totally reasonable, when somebody is coming over for a few months, for the employment contract to guarantee a minimum level of earnings,” says Manning.
Dzmitry, now back home, says he didn’t even earn enough to cover his living costs and the debt he incurred. “Great Britain was the first foreign country I had been to in all my 24 years,” he says. From watching the television, he believed Europe stood for “tolerance, human rights”, but he feels his rights were ignored.
“It’s a very beautiful country,” he says. “But all should be equal . . . that’s the most important thing.”