GRETA said she felt like a “slave” while working on a farm in Scotland.

The former teacher left Ukraine after war broke out in Crimea in 2014, settling in Hungary. Her family’s only breadwinner – with a pensioner mother and a brother with health difficulties to look after – she applied for a UK seasonal worker visa in 2020 and headed to Scotland to earn some extra money picking strawberries and blueberries

“But I couldn’t predict that it would be under such terrible circumstances,” she told The National.

“Seasonal workers are being treated like slaves.”

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Greta (not her real name) described poor working conditions during her time working in Scotland, as well as at a separate farm in England two years later. She spoke of extremely long work shifts – sometimes 17 hours a day – and said that targets were often excessive, even after she sprained her ankle in a workplace accident.

“I picked 15kg of blueberries in two hours and I was sent to my caravan,” she said.

“They said I was lazy and not motivated.”

In the end, Greta said that she didn’t even make minimum wage – earning roughly £3000 in three months.

A ‘high risk’ visa

The seasonal worker visa scheme was launched in 2019 to cover the gaps left by Brexit. A huge majority of the 55,000 casual seasonal workers employed in British agriculture had previously come from Europe.

But labour rights organisations have warned that the way the six-month visa has been designed puts workers at a high risk of exploitation. This is because workers are not only dependent on their recruiter and the farm employing them for a job, but also for housing, transportation and often information about their employment rights.

And the Home Office has been accused of “turning a blind eye” to the issue by the SNP for not releasing or compiling Scotland-specific data – from how many workers on the visa are in Scotland to where they work – which the party called “unacceptable”.

The Worker Support Centre (WSC), a non-profit organisation supporting migrant workers and backed by the Scottish Government, published a report this month that found a “massive increase” in cases across Scotland. 

The National: Pick your own strawberries at White House Farm. Photo: Steve Adams

The report raises serious questions for industry and government about the risks to migrant workers in Scotland – including non-payment of wages, poor treatment, and illegal fees. 

From June to December 2023, the WSC supported 405 individuals from over 12 countries worldwide, with 149 individual cases – many of whom were on a seasonal worker visa. Of those, 74% concerned working conditions while 26% issues related to pay including non-payment of wages or insufficient holiday or sick pay.

Health and safety issues were also raised in 17% of cases, including incidences of unaddressed and severe injuries at work.

The organisation's founder, Caroline Robinson, said this was a "massive increase" on last year. 

The issue is far from a Scotland-specific one, however. The organisation’s study comes soon after a legal challenge was issued against the UK Government by a former worker in England that claims the scheme is breaching human rights. An investigation last year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism also found hundreds of worrying cases of labour exploitation linked to the scheme across the UK.

An independent Scotland “would be more proactive”

SNP MP Stuart McDonald (below) has asked the UK Government about the lack of data on seasonal workers before, to no avail.

The National: SNP MP Stuart McDonald speaks in the House of Commons

He asked specifically whether the Home Office has made an estimate of the number of seasonal workers working in Scotland. 

Tory Immigration Minister Tom Pursglove responded at the time that "no estimate" had been made.

He added: "Nor do we plan to make an estimate of the number of farms in Scotland with workers employed on the seasonal worker visa scheme; and the number of farms in Scotland with each labour provider. The UK operates a national immigration system and does not gather such information by devolved region."

McDonald told The National that an independent Scotland would be “more proactive” in tackling the issue, adding that the Home Office was being "utterly unfair”.

Commenting, he said: “Ensuring we have a successful agricultural workers scheme will always be vital for agriculture in Scotland. However, on the other hand we must always do everything we can to guard against abuse and exploitation of workers.

"The Home Office seems to just turn a blind eye to these issues - something which is utterly unfair and unacceptable. There is no doubt an independent Scotland would take a much more proactive approach to protecting workers from exploitation at the same time as ensuring farms could access the labour they need."

Robinson, meanwhile, said that the Scottish Government “deserves credit” for supporting the centre – which is the only one of its kind in the UK and is led by people with first-hand experience of both the immigration system and seasonal agricultural work.

“The Scottish Government has recognised that this is a visa that's very high risk to workers. That something needs to be done,” she said.

“I think if it were in place across the UK in terms of that support, it would go a long way to providing that independent representation for workers because these workers aren't unionised.”

The human rights consultant added: “The Scottish Government deserves credit for supporting this approach which is helping to prevent the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers north of the Border."

Robinson also said that the Home Office not compiling Scotland-specific data on where workers come from and where they end up makes WSC’s work harder and could lead to more labour exploitation as a result.

“The response from the UK Government has just been that data is not broken down by UK constituent country," she said. 

“But, I mean, it could be.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We take the welfare of visa holders extremely seriously, including those on the Seasonal Workers scheme, and are continuing to clamp down on poor working conditions and exploitation.

“The Home Office carries out compliance activity on a national basis with all employers across the UK subject to the same rules and requirements. We have established a new team which focuses on ensuring sponsors are abiding by workers’ rights and will always take decisive action where we believe abusive practices are taking place.”

The National Farmers' Union of Scotland didn't respond to a request for comment.