More than 200 Indonesian fruit pickers have sought diplomatic help since July after facing difficulties working in Britain this season, the nation’s embassy has revealed.
The Guardian has spoken to a pair of workers sent to a farm in Scotland that supplies berries to M&S, Waitrose, Tesco and Lidl. They claim pickers were sent back to the caravan if they could not work fast enough and left with large debts to repay.
The embassy says the true number of people experiencing problems is likely to be far higher, as many were seeking help on behalf of several workers at the same farms – and others would not have the confidence to approach the embassy.
It says the most common reported problem is a lack of work at farms, especially for those who arrived very late in the season. Some did not start until the harvest was all but over, giving them little opportunity to repay debts incurred when they signed up.
The seasonal worker visa allows people to come to the UK for up to six months and work but there is no guarantee of employment for that period.
One man who started at Castleton farm in Aberdeenshire in July said he was repeatedly sent back to the caravan after just a few hours in the field because he could not meet challenging picking targets, leaving him badly in debt.
The Indonesian worker said he had borrowed money in April to pay a local agent in Java more than £4,650 to come to Britain. The man said the small amounts of work he was given in Scotland meant he typically took home about £200 a week, which made little impact on his debts.
He was eventually dismissed after two months as a result of red warnings for working slowly and moved to a farm in Kent. The work there only lasted until the start of November, leaving him more than £1,700 debt and with no job.
The British Retail Consortium said that supermarkets sourcing from Castleton “are concerned by these allegations and are investigating as a matter of urgency”.
Ross Mitchell, the managing director of Castleton Fruit, said he could not comment on specific cases but that the farm did “have a disciplinary procedure, like all employers do to deal with performance- related issues” that was audited annually and heavily regulated. He said worker wellbeing was of the “utmost importance” and that it emploed nearly 1,000 people each year, of whom more than 70% returned.
Mitchell said the farm had 106 workers this year from Indonesia, 70 of whom were still there. He said they worked an average of 41.81 hours, with an average weekly gross pay of £450.68, before charges such as accommodation costs were taken.
Mitchell said the farm was concerned about “payment demanded by third-party agents” and that they relied on “approved agents to have carried out due diligence to ensure that the workers are not paying excessive fees”.
Mitchell said they first became aware of the charges made to workers once they were already at the farm and they “were very concerned” and immediately reported it to the agent, the authorities and customers. He added: “We had hoped the relevant bodies would have dealt with this issue.”
More than 1,450 Indonesians have come to Britain under the seasonal worker visa, according to the latest figures. They were supplied by AG Recruitment, one of four UK agencies licensed to recruit using the scheme.
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) has been investigating AG’s Indonesian recruitment since the Guardian revealed in August that workers reported taking on debts of up to £5,000 by unlicensed foreign brokers to work in Britain for a single season. AG denied any wrongdoing and said it knew nothing about Indonesian brokers charging money.
An embassy official who has been running support for workers in the UK said initially people sought help with their immigration status because they thought the visa could be transferred to other work. “Then they started coming to us with problems about the targets on farms,” they said.
The official said a small number also reported problems with living conditions in caravans, particularly as the weather got colder. They added: “Currently most people are contacting us because there’s no more work at the farms. They try to transfer but AG tells them there’s no other work.”
The Guardian has previously reported that AG had no prior experience in Indonesia and sought help from the Jakarta-based Al Zubara Manpower, who in turn went to brokers on other islands who charged exorbitant fees to the people they introduced, according to one Al Zubara agent.
AG’s director, Douglas Amesz, said: “Workers should never pay fees to anyone to receive a job in the UK; this is UK law. However, unfortunately this is not law in all the countries we have historically recruited from so we are actively working to educate citizens abroad that they should never pay anyone fees to receive a job in the UK or anywhere else.”
AG said it had been working closely with the embassy while the Indonesian workers had been in the UK and that it did not recognise the figure of more than 200 seeking help. It said AG had “assisted a fraction of the number” and that “the vast majority of workers have had very minor issues”.
Yulia Guyeni, the director of Al Zubara, said she had “no knowledge” of brokers charging more than the agreed amount for flights and visas. She said AG was responsible for looking for farms in the UK and that “we send workers based on the request from AG”.
Guyeni claimed that on the issue of overcharging the Indonesian government had investigated “and concluded that we have not done any wrongdoings”.
Guyeni added that “we only charge based on the placement agreement the workers signed” and that they should have known the right cost because it was on the paperwork. She said of the debts: “It is not our responsibility as we do not encourage them to have debt. They are old enough and should be responsible to realise the consequences of debt.”
A GLAA spokesperson said: “Where there are allegations of labour exploitation we will investigate and take appropriate action if our licensing standards are not being fully adhered to … Scheme operators are fully aware of their responsibilities to workers.”