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UK agriculture and care visas: worker exploitation and obstacles to redress

Research report into UK agriculture and care visas and vulnerability to exploitation.

Published: 11th March 2024

This is a summary of research conducted by five academics (led by Primary Investigator Dr Inga Thiemann) in partnership with four non-governmental organisations (NGOs): Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), Southeast and East Asian Centre (SEEAC) and Kanlungan Filipino Consortium (Kanlungan), with support from UNISON. The project was funded through an open call for proposals by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), which in turn is funded and supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The Modern Slavery PEC has actively supported the production of this Research Summary. However, the views expressed in this summary and the full report are those of the authors and not necessarily of the funders.


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.

Key findings

  1. The conditions attached to visa routes for both the care and agricultural sectors (‘tied’ visas, and – in the case of the agriculture visa - short-term) exacerbate migrant agriculture and care workers’ precarious position, creating a situation of ‘hyper-precarity’ and increasing vulnerability to exploitation. It is common for migrant workers in both sectors to earn low wages, pay high recruitment and transfer fees, and suffer from inappropriate salary deductions and lack of information on employment rights. Workers also risk being made irregular if they leave their employer or lose their job.
  2. Migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation is compounded by the set of policies known as the ‘Hostile/Compliant Environment’. Its impact on workers with precarious migration status, such as the majority of our interviewees, entails apprehension about reporting mistreatment or exploitation to the authorities or pursuing redress about poor conditions, due to fear of Immigration Enforcement action. In particular, this affects those working irregularly or with uncertainty about their status.
  3. Our findings point to deception by intermediaries. Our interviewees’ situations ranged from false promises regarding their employment and conditions while in the UK – especially pay – to misleading information regarding the length of their employment, and lack of appropriate information on their contractual terms and rights.
  4. Our findings show significant issues of debt and deductions from wages across both sectors, both associated with illegal recruitment fees and arising from travel, training and accommodation costs, as well as high visa application fees. Both visas are issued subject to the No Recourse to Public Funds condition, further amplifying workers’ financial precarity.
  5. Migrant workers’ barriers to reporting concerns or exploitation are compounded by the fact that they have trouble accessing employment rights and their contractual entitlements. Government agencies charged with enforcing employment rights are underfunded and do not have capacity to audit workplaces proactively, while the alternative of pursuing claims through Employment Tribunals is often impractical.


These recommendations should also be read subject to the proviso that the most comprehensive way to mitigate against the risk would be to ensure all work visas include an option for renewal, allow visa holders to have access to social entitlements (e.g., remove the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition) whilst they are in the UK, and offer a pathway to settlement within a reasonable timeframe. However, the academic team have formulated specific recommendations that are possible to implement within the short and medium terms that would ameliorate the risk of exploitation and employment rights violations in the context of the research objectives, empirical findings, and significant input from our project partners.

  1. To address the limited labour mobility identified on both the SWV and H&CWV, we recommend that UKVI / Home Office amend the visa schemes to make it viable in practice to change employers. Our specific recommendations include amendments to ’Workers and Temporary Workers: guidance for sponsors, sponsor a seasonal worker’ for the SWV (e.g., requiring written reasons for refusal) and removing the obligation to update visas and providing a longer period to change employer on the H&CWV.
  2. To address the effect of the SWV’s short timescale on debt and ability to seek redress, we recommend the Home Office enable visa extension applications where a worker: (a) can secure a job for a duration longer than six months, (b) can secure a new role or an extension of their current role within the UK, or (c) intends to commence legal action or seek advice on employment matters. Additionally, to address the heightened risk of exploitative conditions for workers currently on the ODWV, we recommend the Home Office amend the Immigration Rules for the Skilled Worker Visa and the ODWV to allow ODWV holders to apply for the H&CWV from within the UK, or to allow for renewal of the ODWV where the worker can secure a relevant job.
  3. To address the significant issues relating to recruitment, including the charging of illegal fees, we recommend that the Modern Slavery Unit and UKVI consider establishing a working group of enforcement agencies, Scheme Operators, NGOs, and academics to determine a comprehensive method of regulating recruitment in line with the IOM’s Montreal Recommendations on Recruitment. We recommend the Department for Health and Social Care implements regulations to abolish repayment fees or, as a minimum, to require them to be set at a reasonable level and to be waived for workers who leave their employer because of poor working conditions.
  4. To address the fragmentation of labour market bodies, we recommend that the Director of Labour Market Enforcement (or other appropriate body) undertake an urgent review in order to establish a clear division of responsibilities between the Home Office / UKVI, DEFRA, and the various labour enforcement bodies, and make this information available to the public. We also recommend that the UK Government and relevant agencies urgently establish a firewall to separate the police and labour inspectorates from immigration enforcement and create secure reporting and inspection pathways.
  5. To allow workers additional avenues to challenge unreasonable behaviour by employers, we recommend that the Home Office require employers to create internal systems of dispute resolution as a condition of sponsorship. Further, we recommend that the UK Government explore mechanisms for establishing an independent and accessible external dispute resolution mechanism.