Peers told that UK fruit picking farms are like prisons

THE BBC has reported that “A South African woman has described working as a fruit picker on farms in the south of England as ‘slave labour’.”

Sybil Msezane told House of Lords horticultural committee, “We weren’t viewed as humans.” “She said that workers were addressed by numbers, rather than names, and forced to work 18 hour days and live in overcrowded caravans. If they complained to bosses they were threatened with deportation.”

The committee, which is investigating the treatment of migrant workers on British farms also heard from Andrey Okhrimenko, from Kazakhstan, who said “If you don’t work fast enough, if you don’t comply with quality… they will say ‘we will cancel your visa, we can send you back home to your country’.”

Both were recruited last year by an agent in their home countries via an advertisement on social media. They had to pay for their own travel and visa before being put to work on fruit farms in the south of England.

Msezane, who is from Johannesburg, is now a care worker for an English local authority. Her treatment in this new role is in stark contrast to her experience as a seasonal agricultural worker, picking and packing strawberries for British supermarkets.

She said that the conditions she found were “beyond shocking. I’d spent close to, almost, £2,500 equivalent. There is no way I am going home at that point. I am here to make money. That’s essentially it. So you get to work.”

The BBC reports that she “had to pay rent to live in a caravan with six people of different nationalities, both men and women, who had a single shower and fridge between them.”

“My country is going through a lot economically. People need work. So I would never say to people not to come on the seasonal worker visa. Everyone who was on the scheme with me was able to support their families in different ways.

But she added: “You need to be aware that you are coming into a country where you don’t have as many rights as a worker as you do in South Africa. So that can be challenging.”

The UK government’s policy is to train British workers to fill the 50,000 seasonal jobs on British farms currently carried out by migrant workers. However, before the UK left EU, most of these casual workers came from Europe.

The BBC notes that “The scheme is due to run until 2024, with debate raging in government over whether it should be expanded to keep food costs down and help tame inflation.

“The government has authorised only a small number of recruitment companies, known as “scheme operators”, to arrange seasonal worker visas. Farmers must hire their overseas workers through those companies and must demonstrate that they are actively trying to recruit UK-based workers as well. Scheme operators also have explicit duties to look after workers’ welfare and make sure they are paid properly.

At an earlier hearing, in April this year, the committee heard from a farmer that it was a “myth” that seasonal fruit picking was a low skilled, poorly paid job with bad accommodation. The farmers said, “Our seasonal workers are paid a minimum of £10.42, the national living wage, and often earn £15 to £20 an hour when they are on piece-work rates. It is good pay. They have subsidised accommodation on the farm.”

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