Acting for change on forced labour in the UK

05 October 2023

In December 2022, CCLA spearheaded a call by investors to help protect migrant seasonal workers in the UK. This came against a backdrop of growing concern that the country’s immigration system is exposing migrant workers to forced labour on UK farms. Last month, we took a further step to act on this important issue.

Background to the Seasonal Worker Scheme (SWS) 

A combination of Brexit and the war in Ukraine has resulted in a shortage of migrant workers for the agricultural sector in the UK. There is evidence to suggest that migrant workers in the UK, recruited and employed through the government’s Seasonal Worker Scheme (SWS), are being obliged to pay excessive fees to agents and middlemen, in addition to travel and visa costs for crucial, but temporary, roles, in support of the UK’s food sector.  

The UK government has committed to tackling modern slavery and the International Labour Organization states that no recruitment fees or related costs should be charged to, or otherwise borne by, workers or jobseekers. Unfortunately, in practice, workers are often forced to take out loans at high interest rates or sign over assets and property to pay the fees and costs associated with securing a job overseas. This leaves the workers open to a high risk of debt bondage, one of the key indicators of forced labour.

What have we done? 

At the end of 2022, we convened ten investors with c. £800 billion in assets under management to sign a statement calling on retailers and firms in, and directly sourcing from, the UK agricultural supply chain to: 

  • implement the Employer Pays Principle, which means that no worker should pay for a job and that the employer should bear all recruitment costs (recruitment fees and associated expenses such as travel etc.)  
  • undertake an investigation of existing workers and ensure a fair process to repay recruitment-related costs that may have been borne by the workers  
  • encourage the government to bring the UK’s Seasonal Worker Scheme in line with international commitments on modern slavery and forced labour

In early 2023, we met representatives from the British Retail Consortium and wrote directly to all UK supermarkets, select hospitality companies, and agricultural suppliers.

Over the summer, we identified an opportunity to push forward on this important issue after the government published an independent review into labour shortages in the food supply chain in the UK. The review, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), set out several key recommendations for government, industry and other key stakeholders.

In response, we gathered a coalition of 14 institutional investors and wrote to Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, urging Defra to implement the recommendations. In particular, those related to access to migrant labour through an improved seasonal worker scheme and its enforcement (recommendation 2), and the need for a workforce data strategy to ensure a sustainable pipeline of agricultural workers and resources (recommendation 7). Our letter was signed by CCLA’s Dame Sara Thornton, former UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

CCLA’s record on tackling modern slavery

Our work to protect migrant seasonal workers is just one part of our flagship investor initiative, ‘Find it, Fix it, Prevent it’, aimed at tackling the scourge of modern slavery in company supply chains. The initiative, formally launched at the London Stock Exchange in 2019, is now supported by 66 institutional investors, representing a combined £14.6 trillion in assets under management.

Last month we published the Find it, Fix it, Prevent it – Modern slavery report 2023, which expands on our work in this area; from corporate engagement with hospitality and construction companies, to work to strengthen the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, and efforts to improve the data landscape around this complex and opaque problem.

At CCLA, we have always believed that the primary role of sustainable finance is to drive positive change. Businesses have a vital role to play in righting the wrongs that exist in the world and we are convinced that investors hold the key to unlocking progress at scale. We look forward to reporting on further progress in this area over the months and years to come.