Nepalis in the Garden of England
Growing up in Kent, the ‘Garden of England’, I’ve done more than my share of fruit picking. We used to live next door to a strawberry field, and that was my first paid job as a young teenager.
My fellow workers then were not Nepalis like Manoj Bhusal but were travellers of another kind – the Roma people. Every June, they parked their caravans in a corner of the farm and whole families, from small children to grandmothers, pitched in with picking berries.
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Times have changed. The impact of Brexit and other factors have created a serious manpower shortage in the UK. Agriculture has always relied on seasonal migrants to help with harvest, so in 2019 the government piloted the Seasonal Worker Scheme (SWS).
Workers from specified countries are allowed to work in the UK for 6 months in any one year, mostly in horticulture. Since 2021, Nepal has been added to the list of eligible countries, and the quota increased to 38,000 workers from countries in eastern Europe and central Asia.
There has been no public fanfare about this policy. The first I learnt of it was when some Nepali friends contacted me this year to ask for my help to get a visa.
The UK government says workers only have to pay the £259 visa fee for the job, and work requires no special skills, no English, only the willingness to perform tedious manual labour. With daily earnings of £100 (Rs16,000), this opportunity could be transformational for many of Nepal’s poorest farmers.
But there is a catch: the poorest and most marginalised Nepalis do not know how to navigate the application process. And even those who may be able to have come to rely on agents who charge exorbitant fees.
In August 2022, an article in The Guardian uncovered Indonesian workers being charged up to £5,000 to secure employment under the SWS. My Nepali friends were also quoted hefty fees by employment brokers in Kathmandu. Is it compulsory to use such agents? I decided to find out.
The first page of the UK Government website describes how to apply for the SWS visa. Only after a detailed reading of subsequent pages did I learn that before applying I had to have a job offer and a ‘Certificate of Sponsorship’, but no list is provided. Finding them via the internet proved hard, even for me, a native English speaker.
So I picked up my mobile and phoned Thanet Earth to ask for a job. This is a massive suburb of greenhouses in East Kent where vegetables are grown on a massive scale: 400 million tomatoes, 30 million cucumbers, 24 million peppers annually.
They told me that although they are a licensed ‘gangmaster’, they are not an ‘approved operator’ for SWS. They use an agency called Pro-Force.
I found Pro-Force’s website clear and easy to navigate, and very concerned about ethical practices. On their Homepage they stress: ‘Pro-Force will never charge for work-finding services. If anyone asks you for money for work, report it to [email protected]. Please do not make payments.’
They are members of Stronger Together, an NGO which protects migrant workers from exploitation, and even provide a link to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) who are the official regulator of complaints.
Unfortunately, they are less clear about how to apply for a job. Their ‘Search Jobs’ showed zero vacancies currently. It is winter after all.
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Pro-Force told me on the phone that they use an intermediary called Poseidon Human Capital, but in the first instance candidates should contact Pro-Force and they will put them in touch with Poseidon.
Returning to the internet, I found a list of approved operators in a Research Briefing in the House of Commons library. I phoned another one called AG Recruitment. They told me candidates should apply directly to them by email or via their website, and they handle the interview process themselves. They do not charge any fees for recruitment.
But the application process is opaque and requires good website navigation and English skills, plus persistence. But it can be done without the intervention of a third party.
Hoping to encounter seasonal workers from Nepal, or their British supervisor, and get their viewpoint, I decided to pay a visit to Thanet Earth. Turning into their drive a sign announced ‘Authorized Persons Only’.
Without much hope, I drove up to the barrier. It miraculously lifted. I drove past unending rows of greenhouses, some empty, some with plants sheltering under heat lamps. Pulling in to the Office building, the receptionist greeted me with suspicion:
“How did you get past security?”
“The barrier lifted”
“I’ll have a word with the security guard. He’s not doing his job.”
“Can you confirm whether you have workers from Nepal?”
“I’m not allowed to reveal anything like that. That’s upstairs information.”
“Could I speak with someone upstairs?”
“You’ll have to apply by email or online.”
“Since I’m here, can I phone them? Perhaps a manager will come downstairs and talk with me?"
“Your phone call will be diverted to me, and I will say the same thing.”
One would think they are growing nuclear bombs, not tomatoes. What are they hiding? I could think of only two reasons for the high security: either they are safe-guarding migrant workers from potential hostility from locals, or they fear the uproar if the public learns that one ministry is recruiting migrant workers, while the Home Secretary Suella Braverman continues to assert that Britain is being ‘invaded’ by ‘economic migrants’ posing as asylum seekers. They cannot have it both ways.
The SWS is a great opportunity, especially for impoverished rural farmers from Nepal, if they can get free assistance with the application.
But applicants should be well-informed and not have to pay extortionate fees to unauthorised agents. Once in the UK, they should be aware of their labour rights. There have been some reports of abuse, but there are many safeguards and ways to report complaints.
Joy Stephens is a social researcher who worked in Nepal with a variety of rural empowerment projects between 1974 and 1998.