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UK agriculture and care visas and vulnerability to exploitation

Research project analysing the impact of post-Brexit visas on people who work in the UK agriculture and care sectors.

The agricultural and care sectors in the UK are ones in which labour exploitation has been widely documented.

In the post-Brexit shake-up of the UK immigration rules, the government has introduced unique schemes for the entry of people coming from overseas to work in these sectors: the Seasonal Worker visa for agriculture and the Health and Social Care visa for care workers.

Agriculture is the first industry in which a Seasonal Worker Visa (SWV) was introduced post-Brexit to address existing labour shortages, allowing workers from a range of countries to enter the UK to work in agriculture for periods less than six months and limiting their right to change employers.

In the care sector, a Health and Care Worker visa allows medical professionals to come to or stay in the UK to do an eligible job with the NHS or in adult social care. The unique risk factors in care are more related to industry-specific factors: a demand for extremely flexible hours, significant involvement of intermediaries and agencies in recruitment, and the devaluing of care as feminised work.

A research project, led by the University of Exeter, in partnership with the University of Bristol, the University of York, and the University of Durham, as well as NGOs Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), Southeast and East Asian Centre (SEEAC) and Kanlungan, with support from UNISON, intends to shed light on the impact of recently introduced migration rules under the post-Brexit immigration system on people who migrated into the UK in these sectors and their vulnerability to exploitation and modern slavery.

The project is among the first studies to be undertaken in the context of the new migration regimes following the end of free movement between the UK and the EU. It aims to analyse the effects of the visa conditions attached to short-term migration schemes on people’s vulnerability to exploitation. This includes access to protective labour market structures, such as union membership, and statutory enforcement and redress, for example through employment tribunals, and whether it creates vulnerability to exploitation.

It will analyse how perceptions of workers’ own insecure status affect their access to enforcement mechanisms and their ability to resist unreasonable demands and exploitative working conditions.

The team and their frontline NGO partners will conduct in-depth qualitative interviews and focus groups with migrant workers and their representative organisations on their experience of work, their bargaining power and access to protective mechanisms, as well as what they would like enforcement mechanisms to look like. The interviews will be complemented by a stakeholder survey. It will also interview representatives of frontline organisations, trade unions and enforcement agencies. They will also carry out desk-based research on ongoing changes to the labour market and new visa regimes prompted by Brexit, Covid-19 and recent legislative initiatives.

The project is an equitable collaboration with non-academic partners, engaging frontline workers as interviewers, interpreters and translators, whilst simultaneously providing interviewees with support.

Project team: Dr Inga Thiemann, Dr Konstantinos Alexandris Polomarkakis, University of Exeter; Dr Natalie Sedacca, University of Durham; Dr Joyce Jiang, University of York; Dr Manoj Dias-Abey, University of Bristol; Meri Åhlberg, FLEX; Dr Lucila Granada, FLEX; Caitlin Boswell, JCWI.

This research was funded by an open call on the links between modern slavery and wider laws and policies, run in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council.