Seasonal migrant guestworkers get a raw deal in UK government scheme up for renewal in 2022

The threat of imminent food shortages are forcing a major rethink of post-Brexit UK immigration policy. An expansion in the UK’s temporary migrant visa programme was rushed through in September in an effort to restore order at petrol stations, get meat processing plants back at full capacity, and ensure supermarket shelves are fully stocked for Christmas. This was widely publicised in the news, but people may be less aware that the Government scheme for all seasonal agricultural workers, from the EU and beyond, is due to end in December. What eventually replaces the ‘Seasonal Worker Pilot’ will have lasting repercussions.

Brexit and the return of the migrant guestworker

It has been estimated that 98% of seasonal workers in the UK food industry come from elsewhere in Europe. Despite a recent softening in attitudes of local UK workers towards the sector, there is reason to believe that the majority of workers in British horticulture will continue to come from abroad (principally Eastern Europe). Prior to Brexit, and under EU Freedom of Movement, these workers were able to enter the UK with their passports or ID cards and move between jobs according to their needs, the demands for their labour, and how satisfied they were with the working conditions. Brexit signalled the end of free movement and, for EU migrants now wanting to work in the UK, the options open to them are significantly more constrained than in the past. The Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme underlines this point and marks a transition to a system where the rights of UK-based workers are greater than the rights of low-wage migrant ‘guests’. Under the pilot scheme, workers may enter the UK for up to six months, are restricted to work in edible horticulture, and are placed with an employer by one of four intermediaries, which makes movement between workplaces difficult. The SWP was set up in 2019 and whilst initially capped at 2,500 workers currently (in 2021) accommodates up to 30,000 workers per annum.

Geographical Openness but Social Closure

The move away from freedom of movement towards guestworker migration, driven by Brexit, has brought with it more openness geographically in the sense that the UK employers can now look further for low-wage harvest workers. However, with this geographical openness has come a social closure: where workers are denied rights and entitlements, and kept at arm’s length in a state of permanent temporariness. This puts seasonal migrant workers at significant risk of poverty and exploitation. The social closure we have seen, and are likely to see, is far from ideal and indicates a problematic trend towards the normalisation of guestworker migration policies. Globally, guestworker schemes like the Seasonal Workers Pilot, effectively mean that home-grown workers have greater rights and freedoms than migrant ‘guests’, even when doing the same job. The UK’s new temporary migrants therefore occupy a far more precarious position in the labour market than EU migrants did under Freedom of Movement.

Time to Listen to the Workers

As freedom of movement ended and as guestworker visas emerged in their place, we found no evidence that workers’ views informed this shift or that workers’ experiences on the seasonal pilot were taken into account when deciding to extend and expand the scheme for 2020 and 2021. Listening to workers and worker representatives, however, one finds evidence of flaws in the guestworker model. For example, a 2021 report by FLEX and Fife Migrants Forum (FMF) found significant problems in the seasonal workers pilot with migrants seen to be at increased risk of trafficking for forced labour. As one of just four core labour standards agreed internationally, workers should also have access to representation. A lack of representation via trade unions or other forms of freedom of association is even more notable considering current safeguarding arrangements. Under the current Pilot system, the same operators are responsible for workers’ welfare and immigration enforcement. Research from around the world has found that where labour protections are linked to immigration control, immigration control undermines labour rights and migrant workers are left at high risks of abuse.

A New Year’s Resolution?

In late 2020, the SWP was extended and expanded at the very last minute without workers’ insights. We are hoping that, for 2022, a more considered and transparent policy decision emerges, underpinned by workers’ views and experiences, and producing an overall more equal and less exploitative policy resolution. Whatever one thinks of the principle of guestworker migration, there are clearly improvements that can be made to this increasingly popular migration and employment policy.

Five key adjustments stand out that are pertinent to the UK SWP, and beyond:

  • Most immediately, all low-wage guestworker schemes should make it possible not only in theory but also in practice to change employers. At present, there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that seasonal workers, if they are unhappy at a workplace, can move elsewhere. The issue of being tied to an employer is further exacerbated if one considers that most seasonal workers will also live onsite, often in relatively remote rural areas.
  • Secondly, a minimum guaranteed income should be available to seasonal workers so that whatever the weather, and however consumer demand varies, workers will know that leaving friends and family back home as they move temporarily to work abroad is financially worthwhile.
  • Third, for those workers who return season after season there should be a pathway to permanent residency, a pathway that may become accessible after say five years. Having regularly contributed to a country guestworkers should eventually be welcomed to settle permanently.
  • To avoid creating a two-tier system of national and migrant workers, workers committing to contribute to a nation’s economy should get full access to the public services that they may need during their time in the UK such as access to the NHS and other public funds.
  • Finally, when devising labour migration and employment policy affecting precarious workers workers’ experiences should be taken into account by governments alongside the requirements of business.  

In the absence of systems of free movement, guestworker schemes have emerged globally to supply businesses with low-wage labour and this is especially true in horticulture. In the UK, and beyond, a new year’s resolution is now necessary if we are to address migrant exploitation through this guestworker model and give hard-working migrants the reception they deserve.

Dr Lydia Medland is a researcher based at the University of Bristol, currently looking for respondents for her ‘Working for five a day’ research project. If you are working in the UK fruit and vegetable sector (as a grower or farm worker) you can complete Lydia’s survey here:

Dr Sam Scott is a Human Geography lecturer based at the University of Gloucestershire interested in migration policy and horticultural work.