Evidence appears to show illicit payments taken from workers harvesting produce for M&S, Tesco and Waitrose.
Ditya*, a single mother from Nepal, is used to travelling abroad for work. For years she has made a living as a migrant farm worker, where she can earn several times what she would in her home country.
Last year she applied to become part of the UK government’s seasonal worker visa scheme, picking fruit and vegetables on a farm in Herefordshire that supplies fresh produce to Marks & Spencer (M&S), Tesco and Waitrose.
Ditya got the job, but it came at a huge cost. In order to secure it, she says she had to pay more than £3,000 – almost a third of what she earned during the six-month post – to recruitment agents.
Some of that money covered the cost of her flight and visa application. The rest appears to include illegal fees that labour rights experts describe as “exploitative and extortionate”.
A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Guardian can reveal that as many as 150 Nepali workers who came to work at Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire as part of the government scheme may have paid similar amounts, many of them claiming they paid agents working for a UK-licensed recruitment company.
The findings suggest that the underfunding of labour-rights enforcement, combined with the rapid expansion of the seasonal worker scheme – which aims to plug shortages created by Brexit and Covid-19 – could be putting thousands of migrant labourers at risk of exploitation.
Tesco and M&S, which buy from Cobrey, have human rights policies requiring their suppliers to ensure workers are not charged fees.
Tesco and M&S said they are urgently investigating the matter. Tesco added that any illegal fees had to be repaid in full. The workers, however, say they have not yet been reimbursed.
A Waitrose spokesperson said it couldn’t comment on the specific case, which was a live investigation, but it would “take whatever action” was needed.
The UK government launched the seasonal workers pilot scheme in 2019 to address concerns that the withdrawal from the EU would cause a shortage of labour for harvesting jobs on farms. Its rules state that workers should only 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 can result in a labour provider being stripped of its licence.
Workers speaking on condition of anonymity said that they paid the fees to agents working for the Nepali company My Careers HR Solutions, which Poseidon Human Capital, a recruitment firm headquartered in London, says it controls day-to-day. Poseidon had in turn been hired by the Brighton-based charity Concordia, one of four organisations that operate the UK government scheme. Concordia had been contracted to find workers to pick fruit and vegetables at Cobrey Farms.
Simon Bowyer, CEO of Concordia, said that his company conducted an investigation and interviewed more than half of the 150 people recruited to work at the farm by Poseidon. He said a “significant percentage” told them they had paid fees to My Careers HR Solutions, its chairman John Khadka, Poseidon or “other named associates”, and that most payments were between RS300,000 (£1,935) and RS750,000 (£4,840).
Poseidon director Matthew Hurley said the company hired its own investigators, from a “reputable law firm”, who found that no officers from his company had been complicit in illegal fees being taken.
The costs for a Nepali worker to participate in the scheme, including charges for preparing documents, visa costs and logistics, are estimated to be more than £2,000, Hurley said. If farms covered these costs, potential “exposure to payment of illicit fees would be eradicated”, he said.
Khadka, who was the chairman of Kathmandu-based My Careers HR Solutions at the time of the alleged breaches, said the investigation found two deposits made by workers to his accounts. He said that both were from longtime friends who he was helping to transfer money.
In March, Khadka denied that his company had recruited Nepali workers to the UK or that he had any dealings with Poseidon. He subsequently said that he was suspended from the My Careers HR Solutions board as a result of Poseidon’s investigation, but added that it found the allegations made against him to be “incorrect”.
Concordia has now terminated its relationship with Poseidon and alerted the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the government body in charge of licensing labour providers and tackling exploitation in the agriculture sector. A spokesperson for the GLAA said it does not “provide a running commentary on specific investigations”.
The charging of recruitment fees via third parties has resulted in thousands of Nepali workers – primarily working in the Gulf and Malaysia – taking out informal loans they struggle to pay back, said Bishal Tamang, an independent migration researcher and former migrant worker. In the worst cases, he said, this has resulted in workers taking their own lives.
“They will borrow money from lenders that charge huge interest rates and give their land deeds as a guarantee. It is normally land that has been in the family for generations,” he said.
Tamang said he had previously paid RS100,000 (£645) to secure work in Saudi Arabia, but that workers can be charged more than 10 times as much for work in the UK.
According to figures obtained through freedom of information requests, the most common allegations in the agriculture sector brought to the GLAA last year were in relation to recruitment fees. A total of 25 such allegations were made in 2021, more than three times the number made in 2018, the year before the scheme’s launch.
“We need food on the shelves in supermarkets, and [migrant workers] have come to make that happen,” said Emily Kenway, a researcher and former adviser to the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner. “We’ve got to hold up our side of the bargain, which does not include workers being fleeced in order to get here.”
Kenway said the GLAA has been more likely to pick up on these issues because it had working relationships with labour enforcement agencies in countries such as Romania, where most migrant workers came from before Brexit. But the GLAA’s resources have not kept pace with the increase in the number of countries from which workers are now being recruited – 58 in 2021.
“We knew something like this was going to happen,” Kenway said. “Everyone who works on labour rights, modern slavery and trafficking has been saying from day one that there is a massive chance that we’re going to have exploitation taking place through the scheme because of its design and the lack of resourcing going into it.”
The seasonal worker scheme, which issued just under 2,500 visas in 2019, is expecting to issue as many as 40,000 this year. Meanwhile, the Home Office’s funding for the GLAA last year was £7m – less than what it spent on publications, stationery and printing.
Data released by the Home Office this week shows that Nepal has provided 395 seasonal workers to the UK in the first three months of this year – the fourth-highest country on the list.
Carolin Ott, a solicitor at Leigh Day, said the new findings were extremely concerning. “It is absolutely vital that this rapidly expanding scheme has necessary safeguards in place to prevent exploitation and ensure protection of seasonal workers’ rights,” she said.
Several workers who went to work at Cobrey Farms in 2021 said the recruitment fees represented a significant proportion of their earnings. One Nepali migrant who harvested asparagus and blueberries said he had paid about £3,100 to a recruiter. He said the farm’s HR team learned in the summer of the “exorbitant fees” some workers said had been charged by My Careers HR Solutions.
Ditya said she paid £4,420, including a £1,260 deposit that was returned to her when she went back to Nepal. When Concordia asked about recruitment fees during its investigation, she lied, saying she had only paid for her visa and flight, because she “didn’t want to get in trouble”.
Chris Chinn, whose family runs Cobrey, said that the farm notifies and cooperates with the GLAA in the event of any alleged or observed breach of labour standards. He said Cobrey’s licence means it has been “assessed as meeting the rigorous standards set by the GLAA”.
Concordia’s Simon Bowyer said that his company would not be refunding the workers, but would like to see My Careers HR Solutions do so. “I don’t know the exact nature of the relationship between My Careers and Poseidon,” he said, but we were not happy when we found that relationship – whatever it was – existed.”
TBIJ and the Guardian have also seen training certificates issued to Cobrey workers that feature the logos of the British Council and Ofqual, both of which said that they have not accredited any of the people or companies named in the documents. Hurley put this down to a “certification mistake” that was being addressed.
*Name has been changed
Additional reporting by Pramod Acharya