Migrant workers on British farms trapped in ‘debt bondage’, MPs told


Government inspectors have found cases of debt bondage among seasonal agricultural workers in the UK, MPs have heard.Margaret Beels, director of labour market enforcement at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis), told a committee of MPs she was “worried” that overseas recruitment had led to some seasonal workers being stuck in debt bondage.Speaking at the Beis Select Committee on Tuesday, she said the short timeframe agencies had to recruit workers for the scheme meant they had been unable to do the proper checks to ensure staff were not trapped by debt.Ms Beels said: “When I last did a count last summer, there were 53 different countries from whom we were recruiting agricultural workers.“And part of the trouble, and it goes back to government, is the number of workers that were engaged in that scheme was announced quite late on and so the operators went far and wide to attract workers in.I have learned not to use slavery lightly as a termRead More“There needs to be a better regulated system such that the due diligence that the operators should be doing, they have time to do it.”Asked by the SNP’s Alan Brown whether she knew how many seasonal workers were trapped in debt bondage, she said: “I do know that GLAA (Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority) inspectors are coming across it.”Debt bondage involves workers being paid little or no wages in order to repay debts, which can include large fees charged by foreign recruitment agencies.In 2016, a UN report described debt bondage as “the most prevalent form of forced labour worldwide”.Asked whether this amounted to modern slavery, Ms Beels said: “I have learned not to use slavery lightly as a term.“Very often the debts are owed, not to an employer in this country, but to somebody overseas. That makes it more difficult.”She added that while the UK Government might find it difficult to intervene when a debt is contracted overseas, it could make sure operators had “enough time to make sure that workers are being recruited responsibly” in future.She said: “The question is how far down the chain do operators go in terms of their own due diligence, because they will say ‘well, we make sure that the agency that we are using is a responsible agency and doesn’t do that’.“But these supply chains are quite lengthy.”