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Farm workers on UK seasonal visas to be guaranteed 32 hours a week

Organisations supporting seasonal workers have welcomed the new government guarantee of at least 32 hours paid work a week to people coming to harvest British crops.

In a speech at the National Farmers’ Union conference on Tuesday, the farming minister, Mark Spencer, confirmed changes to the conditions for 2023 visas.

However, workers rights organisations cautioned that the government still needed to do more to protect farm workers from debt bondage.

Last season, the Guardian revealed that Indonesian workers owed as much as £5,000 to unlicensed foreign brokers when they arrived in Britain, despite having work for only a single season. They found themselves initially on zero-hours contracts, with take-home pay of less than £300 a week.

Labour rights experts said the new measures should help prevent low earnings in the UK but that more steps were needed to protect foreign workers from exploitation.

Kate Roberts, the head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation, said: “The introduction of 32 guaranteed paid hours of work per week would be a positive step forward to reduce risk of destitution and debt on the scheme. Given the reports of workers being left without any work at all after only a short period, this commitment must include targeted enforcement, with clear pathways for reporting issues and accessing compensation if contracts are not respected.”

Previously there was a ban on zero-hours contracts for workers who came under the scheme, but it was not always enforced. One farm in Kent did not guarantee hours to workers last season until the Guardian contacted it. Even then, workers’ contracts were increased only to a minimum of 20 hours, making it difficult to repay debts.

Adis Sehic, a policy and research officer at the Work Rights Centre, said the new 32-hour minimum was a “welcome first step” in reducing the potential for exploitation. He said: “We hope that the government can build on this announcement with other constructive developments, including in relation to streamlining the process for workers to request and obtain transfers, and better standards of accommodation for workers.”

Spencer said on Tuesday that an initial 45,000 visas would be granted from 1 April for this season – 15,000 more than last year – and there was a possibility of 10,000 more if needed. He said that guaranteeing 32 hours and the living wage was “the decent thing to do – and I think it is vital that we all stick to it”.

Andy Hall, an independent migrant rights specialist, said he feared the “potentially positive” impact of the announcement would be undermined “by the overall risks of forced labour inherent in a seasonal workers scheme that prioritises addressing labour shortages quickly and cheaply over worker welfare and adherence to the rule of law”.

He added: “Workers will remain at extreme risk of debt bondage as a result of having to bear the burden of costly recruitment practices bringing them to the UK.”

Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the farmers’ union, welcomed the announcement and said it gave farmers as well as workers coming to Britain “clarity and confidence” in the scheme. But he said any proposal by workers’ representatives for farms or buyers to cover the cost of workers’ travel was “a step too far”.

A government spokesperson said: “The welfare of the people using our visa schemes is always of paramount importance for is, including in the seasonal workers’ scheme. We work closely with scheme operators, who have responsibility for ensuring the welfare of migrant workers, preventing zero-hours contracts and managing the recruitment process overseas. We will thoroughly investigate any reports of abuse.”


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