Menu Menu

The shocking living conditions of the UK’s migrant farmers

The people who pick and ultimately provide your fruit and veg are being gravely exploited by their employers. But what can we do to change it? 

The UK has a tendency to pride itself on fair wages and progressive working conditions. But just like our self-proclaimed status as an economic power-house, these statements are increasingly becoming works of fiction.

Nowhere are the UK’s exploitative working conditions more evident than in the farming industry – which, ironically, has long been held up as a pillar of Britishness.

An investigation by Vice Media last week found that migrant farmers in the UK are being forced to live in squalid conditions, many of them cramped in freezing caravans that cost more per square foot than a London flat.

Vadim Sardov, a 24-year-old farmer who travelled to Britain from Kazakhstan in 2022, said that his caravan fell to just 8C. Four people were living there and paying up to £60 a week for electricity.

Conditions like this put individuals at risk of hypothermia. Farmers like Vadim have become ill under the strain of their cold and damp environment, but employers aren’t sympathetic.

Vadim’s manager told him to tape up the vents in his caravan with packing tape, and when this didn’t work, he was told he could ‘return to Kazakhstan’ if he wasn’t happy.

Data from Works Rights Centre, a charity advocating for the rights of migrant workers in the UK, found that people like Vadim aren’t alone, either.

Their accounts revealed a scheme where workers are often housed in unsafe and unsanitary conditions with fewer protections than ordinary tenants.

Each year, thousands of people come to the UK from countries like Nepal, Indonesia, and Ukraine, to work on a six-month agricultural visa. The scheme was launched after Brexit caused a widespread labour shortage in 2019.

Angel, a former farm worker from South Africa, shared a similar experience to Vadim. She was forced to work in extreme heat during the summer of 2022, picking around 100-150kg of strawberries every day.

While the produce picked by workers like Angel end up in our favourite supermarkets – from Lidl, to Co-op, to Tesco – those on the ground are force to work without toilet breaks, in brutal weather conditions, all while being punished for talking to one another.

Across the board, workers have criticised the UK’s post-Brexit seasonal worker scheme as a springboard for racism and mistreatment.

Issues cited include lack of health and safety, racism, and poor accommodation without bathrooms or running water.

A UK government survey of workers found that many of those who had travelled to the UK on seasonal agricultural visas had not been given employment contracts in their native language, and had been subject to unfair treatment by their employers including racism and discrimination on the grounds of nationality.

These statistics come almost a year after initial crackdowns on exploitative working conditions in Britain, proving little has changed.

‘Even in our post-Soviet Union countries no one runs a business like that, by making people live in such terrible conditions’ Vadim told Vice.

Many farmers had described experiences of sharing rooms and even beds with strangers, while women were forced to sleep in caravans with men.

One worker even recalled sleeping with a blanket over his face due to a leak from the roof. His employer told him the issue would be fixed ‘next season’.

Despite these blatant instances of modern slavery, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) claims to have found no licensing offences, given that workers were offered the chance to move to another farm if they wished.

Given farming’s status as a cornerstone of British culture, these findings aren’t good enough. Investigations like those by Vice must be a call to action, both from the British public and the farming industry, all the way up to the government.

Recruitment operator Concordia said of the migrant farming scheme, ‘as a labour provider we strive to ensure that our member farms get the labour they need in order to feed the nation’.

But fundamentally, it’s the workers on those farms that are filling our supermarket shelves. Next time we take a bite of our British fruit and veg, consider the human hands that got it safely to your plate. Perhaps they need your support in return.