Research into the Impact of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers 2021
In early 2021, Pro-Force supported the University of Nottingham’s research project, looking at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migration to the UK, specifically within the agri-food sectors. The project, headed by Dr Oana Burcu, Rights Lab Research Fellow in Migration and Human Trafficking, was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC). 19% of those sampled workers were working on agriculture, which included a number of Pro-Force’s staff, who were working on assignment in Cornwall, picking daffodils for our sister company, Varfell Farms.
The research found that in general, workers were satisfied with COVID-19 security measures undertaken by British farms. The report also noted that with regards to COVID-19, the biggest impact was around reduced earnings potential which negatively affected those with Roma community backgrounds more in comparison to non-Roma Romanians and Bulgarians. Businesses also found challenges, which included higher costs for PPE, limited ability to audit supply chains and of course, labour shortage supplies.
We are pleased to note that the research noted a number of areas of good practice, such as commitments to providing agreed levels of hours each week, sharing best practice guidelines and buddy systems in place to check on worker’s mental and physical health. We also note that the agricultural industry, in a number of key risk areas, was most likely to adhere to key regulations and have procedures in place to ensure worker’s welfare, which included:
- Providing workers with a written contract
- Payment of the National Minimum Wage
- Payment on time with issued payslips
- Receiving holiday and holiday pay
- Good standards of employer provided accommodation
The report suggested this might be a result of positive labour provider practices due to licencing by the Gangmaster’s and Labour Abuse Authority.
Concerns raised generally included the requirements for some workers (around 10% of sampled workers) having to borrow money prior to leaving their country of origin. We recognise the difficulty, especially following the end of freedom of movement, in raising funds to cover travel and VISA costs.
Again, the report notes that the negative experiences disproportionality affect those from Roma community groups. We have found from our own recruitment experiences that within many cultures and nationalities there are groups of individuals who have less knowledge around their rights and what to expect when working in the UK. Difficulties include language skills, literacy and a lack of trust in authority figures generally.
Recommendations for improvement within the report focused on a number of key risk areas, which are detailed below. We have also summarised procedures we have in place, and procedures we intend to implement in 2021 and 2022.
The report highlights the additional risks posed to migrant workers by businesses relying on zero hours contracts. Pro-Force, via the Seasonal Worker’s Pilot Scheme, has committed to ensuring a weekly minimum of 32 hours. If we cannot provide those hours, for reasons such as the crop, weather or similar, we will pay workers makeup pay to that value. We hope that we will be able to expand this commitment to our entire client base in 2022 and onwards.
Access to employment related advice
The report focused on the importance of ensuring that workers are not only able to access information on their rights, but also how to get help if those rights are not honoured. Several barriers were indicated, including language abilities, literacy and a lack of knowledge about who to ask. Pro-Force has recently worked with the Just Good Work App, which is available in Romanian and Bulgarian, and we have funded its translation into Ukrainian. This has provided our workers, as well as workers for other labour providers, free and impartial advice, in their own language, on employment rights and how to access help if they need it. We are working on improving the quality and accessibility of our recruitment and pre-departure orientation training, such as creating videos to increase understand amongst those with lower literacy levels, for all nationalities, including the most vulnerable Roma community groups. Additionally, we are re-opening on the ground offices in our source countries where COVID-19 restrictions allow providing a hands on, face to face service, so we can start building trust with local communities before staff leave for their jobs in the UK.
The report indicated that a number of employers were not able to provide basic training in a language understood by their workers. Pro-Force is a multinational and multilingual business, our staff speak the majority languages and can effectively communicate with our workforce. We also provide all our operational documentation in native languages as standard practice.
Improvements for 2022 and beyond
The feedback and recommendations provided in this report has given us an excellent grounding for improvements for the 2022 season and beyond. We are hopeful that our new initiatives such as our online training platform, video recruitment information and projects such as the Good Work App translation make head way to reduce worker mistrust, improve worker knowledge and improve working conditions on UK farms more generally.
Siobhan Marsh – Compliance Manager, Pro-Force Limited