Perspective: Who picks your fruit? And more importantly who represents them in policy spaces? 


Blog by Caroline Robinson, Human Trafficking for Labour Exploitation Expert

From Summer 2020-early 2021 I led research with seasonal horticultural workers in Scotland on the UK’s new ‘Seasonal Workers Pilot.’ We found a significant threat to workers on the pilot of human trafficking for forced labour and a concerning lack of workplace oversight or worker representation. Many workers spoke of: deception in recruitment; barriers to changing employer; verbal abuse; unsafe accommodation; and very high debts. From a human trafficking prevention perspective, the findings are shocking, but when coupled with the absence of government inspection of workplaces they become truly terrifying. The UK government’s own data shows just two compliance visits to participating farms in Scotland in 2019. Without pro-active labour inspection, authorities rely on individual complaints, so worker representation becomes essential. Unfortunately, by and large seasonal agricultural workers are not represented either by trade unions, migrant community organisations or anyone else. Without inspection or representation, this high-risk visa scheme invites worker abuse and exploitation.

Background to the UK Seasonal Workers Pilot

The Seasonal Workers Pilot was first announced in 2018 as a knee jerk response to the imminent end of the UK Brexit transition period. Farmers had been putting increasing pressure on the UK government to develop a solution to pressing and growing labour shortages. The Pilot was initially set to take place over two years, throughout 2019 and 2020. Initially it was open to 2500 workers who, under the terms of their Seasonal Worker Visa, could come to the UK for a period of six months to work in horticulture, with no return in a 12-month period. Workers’ visas were to be sponsored by approved labour providers, yet once in the UK they would be employed by the farms for which they worked. By January 2020 the quota had been increased to 10,000 workers, and within 12 months it was extended throughout 2021 with the quota raised to 30,000 workers. In December 2021 the UK Government extended the pilot scheme again to 2024. Most workers on the pilot to date have come from Ukraine, in 2021 67% of all workers, or 19,920 individuals, who came to the UK on Seasonal Workers Visas were Ukrainian. Whilst the Seasonal Workers Pilot has been expanded and extended, it has yet to be fully evaluated (with just one evaluation published of its first year of operation so far) or reviewed for its impact on workers.

Lessons from around the world in migrant worker representation and power

The Seasonal Workers Visa makes it hard to organise workers. Their stay in the UK is short, there is no minimum language requirement, their earnings are low and their workplaces are dispersed. Unite the union, which has traditionally represented agricultural workers, struggles to organise horticultural workers for these reasons, coupled with strong employer hostility towards trade unions. This poses a particular pressing problem since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of how to reach these workers to understand their needs at this critical time.  Whilst there is limited worker representation in seasonal horticulture in Scotland, I’ve been looking at examples from elsewhere which show what could be possible:

In Ireland, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland – a national migrant support organisation – initiated the ‘Mushroom Workers Support Group’ in 2006. The group spanned workers from countries ranging from Lithuania to Thailand and offered peer support, solidarity and collective action. Its members raised the profile of worker mistreatment on mushroom farms and secured unpaid wages. The group combined efforts with the Irish trade union, SIPTU and worked together to negotiate with employers for improved treatment of workers. This work led to the establishment of Registered Employment Agreements with individual employers. Migrant Rights Centre Ireland created opportunities for migrants to join together in solidarity to pursue action for change in mushroom factories. The partnership with the trade union SIPTU made employers listen and enter negotiations.

In Germany, the Industrial Union for Construction, Agriculture and the Environment (IGBAU) has been testing new approaches to engage seasonal migrant workers. In 2004 IGBAU set up a parallel union, the European Migrant Workers Union (EMWU) which served seasonal workers offering legal advice, medical support and collective bargaining. However the EMWU ultimately was too costly to run and struggled to recruit and retain workers, it separated from the trade union in 2010. IGBAU has recently drawn on lessons from this work to create of a new hybrid membership model within the main union this time, with dedicated membership terms and fees for seasonal migrant workers. Workers are offered a reduced membership fee, with an automatic 12 month cut off and a multi-lingual telephone hotline. This model is still new, but IGBAU is hopeful it offers an additional resource to support workers.

Finally in Canada, the Workers Action Centre and Justicia for Migrant Workers operate a new worker organising model which the Workers Action Centre calls ‘community unionism.’ This model focusses on engaging seasonal migrant workers in their communities and building the capacity of migrants to lead campaigns and advocacy, creating solidarity between migrant workers. Justicia for Migrant Workers takes a political approach to the issues faced in seasonal agriculture, challenging the Canadian visa system and its roots in colonialization. The leadership of migrant workers in the media and campaigns has made the Canadian public listen to their voices and recognise their work. The concept of ‘community unionism’ is well tested in Canada and has served to support migrant workers’ human rights and help migrant workers to rise up as leaders of wider social change movements.

Case studies from Canada, Germany and Ireland are rich with examples of what could be done in Scotland to support migrant worker representation and power.

The main lesson from all three examples is that there is no single solution to ensure seasonal migrant agricultural workers achieve workplace representation. Instead a mix of strategies need to be adopted in combination. Through research into these case studies I have identified five key strategies for temporary migrant agricultural worker representation in Scotland:

  1. Grassroots movement building

Transformative work in Ireland and Canada, shows how important it is to work at the grassroots to mobilise and build capacity of temporary migrant workers to lead organising and campaigning work.  The ‘community unionism’ model developed by grassroots migrant-led groups in Canada, engages with migrant workers in their communities on a wide range of issues important to them – in partnership with trade unions – rather than viewing them simply as workers. Grassroots engagement by migrant support and community organisations is a first step towards representation and power for seasonal migrant agricultural workers.

  • Migrant worker support centres

In both Germany and Canada, migrant worker support centres provide support to all workers who need it, regardless of unionisation. In Canada the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has established support centres in provinces where unionisation is not permitted in law. In Germany, the organisation Arbeit und Leben (Work and Life), runs a helpline and advice service from its centres offering workers information their labour rights and support to pursue claims. Migrant worker support centres provide stable support to seasonal migrant agricultural workers and help to link with trade unions.

  • Flexible trade union approaches

IGBAU in Germany and UFCW in Canada have both tested and refined evidence-based approaches to organising and servicing seasonal migrant workers. IGBAU has launched a hybrid membership for temporary migrant workers with specific terms and fees. UFCW has adopted the approach of travelling from farm to farm gathering evidence and then used that evidence to inform the establishment of a network of migrant support centres. Trade union flexibility helps to overcome some of the barriers to seasonal migrant agricultural worker representation.

  • Government funding

In Germany, Arbeit und Leben receives federal and regional funding which has enabled it to offer a continuous and stable support service to temporary migrant workers. In Canada, in recognition of the risks of temporary migrant visas, the government has established a pilot ‘migrant worker support network’ to identify support needs and provide services to migrant workers. Government funding recognises the increased risks of exploitation on seasonal work programmes. It also helps organisations to overcome some of the obstacles to temporary migrant worker engagement.

  • Deliberative policy spaces.

The Scottish Agricultural Wages Board (SAWB) offers a deliberative policy making space, involving employers, trade unions and independent appointees of the Government. SAWB produces annual policy guidance on agricultural wages and conditions. Deliberative spaces provide a forum for migrant workers, government officials and employers to discuss policy, ensuring it is evidence led. The question of who is present and who they represent is key to worker power in policy spaces.

Looking beyond Scotland, it is obvious that there are no simple solutions to the challenge of temporary migrant worker representation and power. However, careful grassroots engagement, sustainable worker support and flexible trade union approaches together can help overcome the obstacles that exist. If the gap in worker representation in Scotland is to be filled then new approaches must be taken by the Scottish Government, trade unions and migrant community organisations. Despite the challenges, Scotland now has an opportunity to learn from and replicate success, to help those who urgently need support, to prevent abuse and exploitation and to meet its ambition to become a Fair Work nation.

Caroline Robinson has fifteen years’ experience working to prevent human trafficking for labour exploitation. She is an independent consultant based in Highland Perthshire whose work currently includes delivering independent expert advice to the Council of Europe on human trafficking for labour exploitation and conducting research on seasonal work and human trafficking for forced labour. Caroline founded the UK based anti-trafficking charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) in 2012 and served as Director until August 2019. She previously led international policy for the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women in Thailand where she co-founded the Anti-Trafficking Review Journal in 2011 and still serves on its Editorial Board. She serves on the Board of the Perth and Kinross Association of Voluntary Service (PKAVS).

Caroline is seeking to make contact with migrant led, and migrant support organisations that are engaging with seasonal workers in Scotland. Contact her on to discuss.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessaity reflect the position of Migration Policy Scotland.