Ditya*, a single mother from Nepal, used to travel abroad for work. For years, she has earned a living as a migrant farm worker, where she can earn many times what she would earn in her home country. Last year she applied to be part of the UK government’s seasonal worker visa scheme, picking fruit and vegetables from a Herefordshire farm that supplies fresh produce to Marks & Spencer (M&S), Tesco and Waitrose.
Ditya got the job, but it was very expensive. To get it, she says she had to pay more than £3,000 – almost a third of what she earned during the six-month job – to recruitment agents.
Some of that money covered the cost of his flight and visa application. The rest appears to include illegal charges that labor law experts call “exploitation and extortion.”
A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Guardian may reveal that up to 150 Nepalese workers who came to work at Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire under the government scheme may have paid similar amounts, many of them them claiming they are paid agents working for a licensed recruitment company in the UK.
The findings suggest that the underfunding of labor rights enforcement, combined with the rapid expansion of the Seasonal Worker Scheme – which aims to fill shortages created by Brexit and Covid-19 – could expose thousands of migrant workers at risk of exploitation.
Tesco and M&S, which source from Cobrey, have human rights policies requiring their suppliers to ensure workers do not pay fees.
Tesco and M&S said they were urgently investigating the matter. Tesco added that any illegal charges must be fully reimbursed. The workers, however, say they have not yet been reimbursed.
A Waitrose spokesman said he could not comment on the specific case, which was a live investigation, but would “take all steps” necessary.
The UK government launched the seasonal worker pilot scheme in 2019 to address concerns that EU withdrawal would lead to a shortage of labor to harvest farm jobs. Its rules state that workers only have to pay a visa application fee of £259 (£244 until April this year) and travel costs. Any additional recruitment fees are illegal under UK law and may result in the withdrawal of a labor contractor’s licence.
Workers speaking on condition of anonymity said they paid the fees of agents working for the Nepalese company My Careers HR Solutions, which Poseidon Human Capital, a London-based recruitment firm, says it monitors on a day-to-day basis . Poseidon had in turn been hired by the Brighton-based charity Concordia, one of four organizations that run the UK government scheme. Concordia had been hired to find workers to pick fruits and vegetables at Cobrey Farms.
Simon Bowyer, CEO of Concordia, said his company investigated and interviewed more than half of the 150 people hired to work on the farm by Poseidon. He said a “significant percentage” told them they had paid fees to My Careers HR Solutions, its president John Khadka, Poseidon or “other named associates”, and that most payments ranged between SR300,000 (£1,935) and SR750,000 (£4,840).
Poseidon director Matthew Hurley said the company hired its own investigators, from a “reputable law firm”, who found that no executive at his company had been complicit in any illegal charges.
Costs for a Nepalese worker to take part in the scheme, including document preparation fees, visa fees and logistics, are estimated to be over £2,000, Hurley said. If farms covered these costs, “potential exposure to illicit royalty payments would be eradicated,” he said.
Khadka, who was president of Kathmandu-based My Careers HR Solutions at the time of the alleged breaches, said the investigation revealed two deposits made by workers into his accounts. He said the two were from longtime friends he was helping to transfer money.
In March, Khadka denied that his company recruited Nepali workers from the UK or that he had any dealings with Poseidon. He then said he had been suspended from the My Careers HR Solutions board following Poseidon’s investigation, but added that he had concluded the allegations against him were “incorrect”.
Concordia has now ended its relationship with Poseidon and alerted the Gangmasters and Labor Abuse Authority (GLAA), the government body responsible for licensing labor contractors and combating exploitation in the agricultural sector. A GLAA spokesperson said it does not “provide routine commentary on specific investigations.”
Charging recruitment fees via third parties has led thousands of Nepalese workers – mostly working in the Gulf and Malaysia – to take out informal loans that they struggle to repay, said Bishal Tamang, an independent migration researcher and former migrant worker. In the worst cases, he said, it led to workers committing suicide.
“They will borrow money from lenders who charge huge interest rates and pledge their land titles as collateral. It is normally land that has been in the family for generations,” he said.
Tamang said he had already paid RS100,000 (£645) to get a job in Saudi Arabia, but workers can be charged more than 10 times more for a job in the UK.
According to figures obtained through access to information requests, the most common allegations in the agricultural sector brought before the GLAA last year concerned recruitment fees. A total of 25 such allegations were made in 2021, more than three times the number in 2018, the year before the program launched.
“We need food on the supermarket shelves, and [migrant workers] came to make it happen,” said Emily Kenway, researcher and former adviser to the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. “We have to live up to our end of the bargain, which doesn’t include workers being cheated to get here.”
Kenway said the GLAA was more likely to pick up on these issues because it had working relationships with law enforcement agencies in countries like Romania, where most migrant workers came from before Brexit. But GLAA resources have not kept pace with the increase in the number of countries from which workers are now recruited – 58 in 2021.
“We knew something like this was coming,” Kenway said. “Everyone who works on labor rights, modern slavery and trafficking has said from day one that there is a high chance that we will be exploited through this program because of its design and the lack of resources devoted to it. ”
The seasonal worker program, which issued just under 2,500 visas in 2019, is expected to issue up to 40,000 this year. Meanwhile, Home Office funding for the GLAA last year was £7m – less than it spent on publications, stationery and printing.
Data released by the Home Office this week shows Nepal supplied 395 seasonal workers to the UK in the first three months of this year – the fourth highest country on the list.
Carolin Ott, a lawyer at Leigh Day, said the new findings were extremely concerning. “It is absolutely vital that this rapidly expanding program has the necessary safeguards to prevent exploitation and ensure the rights of seasonal workers are protected,” she said.
Several workers who went to work at Cobrey Farms in 2021 said recruiting fees were a significant proportion of their income. A Nepali migrant harvesting asparagus and blueberries said he paid a recruiter around £3,100. He said the farm’s human resources team had learned this summer of the “exorbitant fees” some workers had charged My Careers HR Solutions.
Ditya said he paid £4,420, including a £1,260 bond which was returned to him upon his return to Nepal. When Concordia asked about recruitment fees during its investigation, it lied, saying it only paid for its visa and flight because it “didn’t want to get in trouble”.
Chris Chinn, whose family runs Cobrey, said the farm notifies and cooperates with the GLAA in the event of alleged or observed violations of labor standards. He said Cobrey’s license means he has been “assessed as meeting the rigorous standards set by the GLAA.”
Concordia’s Simon Bowyer said his company would not reimburse workers, but would like My Careers HR Solutions to do so. “I don’t know the exact nature of the relationship between My Careers and Poseidon,” he said, but we weren’t happy when we found out that relationship — whatever it was — existed.
TBIJ and the Guardian also saw training certificates issued to Cobrey workers which feature the logos of the British Council and Ofqual, both of which said they had not accredited any of the people or companies named in the documents. Hurley attributed this to a “certification error” that was being fixed.
*Name has been changed
Additional reporting by Pramod Acharya
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