Overseas seasonal workers are integral to how the UK fruit and veg crops are picked and packed.

‘We weren’t humans’: Seasonal workers speak up

Being identified as numbers, threats of dismissal and high pressure are some of the conditions faced by seasonal workers on UK farms, according to new evidence.

This piece is part of the Exploits series, from Wicked Leeks and Live Frankly, aiming to highlight the systemic poor conditions faced by people working in food and fashion. Find out more here.

Harsh working conditions, threats of dismissal and being referred to as numbers are some of the conditions seasonal workers face when working on UK farms, according to new testimonies.

Three seasonal workers, along with an investigative journalist who has been covering the conditions under which migrant workers work on UK farms, gave evidence to the House of Lords’ horticultural committee last week, as part of its longer enquiry into the challenges facing the sector at the moment.

“About respect, there wasn’t even a bit of it,” said Vadim Sardov, a former seasonal worker from Kazakhstan who came to the UK in 2022. “The manager was always telling us that he could change us tomorrow and using that fact to manipulate us. Every morning he told us: if you’re not happy, you can leave.”

Sybil Msezane, who came to the UK to work on berry and veg farms after the government seasonal worker scheme opened to South Africans last year, said: “I don’t think the farmer knew that we existed outside of the weight of the fruit that we picked.

“We weren’t humans, we were chattels. We called by our numbers in the mornings. Having previously worked with young people who were incarcerated in the States, that’s the kind of system you use in a prison system.

“On one farm, six to eight adults were expected to share very small caravans and it was mostly expected to be mixed accommodation. If you were seasonal, rather than regular, the kind of treatment you received was very different,” said Msezane, who said her cousin experienced sexual harassment and even with recordings and evidence, received no action.

The testimonies have been covered across mainstream media as evidence of the often inhumane conditions seasonal workers, who are relied on to pick UK crops of fruit and veg across the entire sector, are often forced to work under.

Journalist Emiliano Mellino, whose investigation for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism brought these recent case studies to light, pointed out that: “These are by no means isolated cases. The use of numbers and threats were relayed to us by workers at other farms.

“There is a tremendous pressure to pick as much as possible,” he added. “If you don’t meet your targets in the first three hours, you’re punished by not being able to work for the rest of the day.”

While the three workers were happy to be named, Mellino said he spoke to many who would only talk to him on condition of anonymity, and they would be the ones who were more likely to have paid extra fees for visas or transport via unlicensed recruiters.

“There used to be a website where you could find the four licensed operators for seasonal recruitment: you can’t find a website like that anymore,” he said.

“There is no page where you can see what countries we’re recruiting from. No page even where you can see the subcontractors that the operators are using. It opens up a space for exploiting people who are trying to come to the UK and don’t know how.

“I’ve had cases where people ask me because they’ve seen my name online and they ask me how to come on a visa. Because they can’t find any official info on this, so Facebook and TikTok become the avenue where people learn about the scheme. And obviously the information can be patchy and at times it can lead to exploitation.”

The UK fruit and veg industry relies on approximately 70,000 seasonal workers to help pick the domestic crop, which it has been increasingly struggling to recruit since Brexit made coming to the UK more difficult for Europeans.

The government has recognised and continued the visa scheme that allows seasonal workers into the country, but a number of investigations have been increasingly pointing to the exploitation of rights and poor conditions that these workers are subjected to.

It comes at a time of high rising food costs in the UK, partly down to rising costs in energy, fuel but also sourcing and paying workers.

A spotlight on how these workers are treated is building as a result, with a government review on how seasonal workers are recruited works due for release this summer, and an editorial from trade magazine The Grocer asking whether is it time for ‘action on seasonal worker abuse’ this week.    

Founder of organic veg box company, Guy Singh-Watson, told ITV he was “ashamed” to be a part of an industry where that’s the norm. “We need to progress it back to something which is a more human scale,” he said.


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