CCLA investor group calls out modern slavery in UK seasonal work

Statement from 10 investors with £806bn AUM says migrant workers are unfairly bearing recruitment costs

CCLA Investment Management has rallied 10 institutional investors with a combined £806bn assets under management and advice to call on companies to better protect the UK’s migrant seasonal workers.

Quilter Cheviot, Epworth Investment Management, Sarasin & Partners and Schroders are among firms to have signed a statement calling on retail companies and companies sourcing staff from the UK agriculture supply chain to investigate recruitment costs that might be being unfairly paid by workers.

“We have concerns about business models that rely on or benefit from modern slavery and/or precarious working conditions. These models are ultimately unsustainable, and risk destroying value in the long term,” the statement said.

The group said migrant workers, recruited and employed through the government’s Seasonal Worker Scheme, “are being obliged to pay excessive fees to agents and middlemen in addition to other fees, travel and visa costs for crucial, but temporary roles, supporting the UK’s food sector”, to the tune of more than £35m in 2022 alone, some estimates predict.

This comes as the UK government announced there will be 45,000 visas available for businesses to recruit seasonal workers next year, 15,000 more than at the start of this year.

The investor group is therefore calling on companies to implement the Employer Pays Principle, which means no worker should pay for a job and that the employer should bear all recruitment costs.

These costs leave workers open to a high risk of debt bondage, one of the key indicators of forced labour, the group said in the statement.

“Experts who have interviewed seasonal workers have identified many indicators of forced labour,” said Dame Sara Thornton, the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, now advising CCLA, who wrote to the UK government early this year expressing concern regarding the Seasonal Worker Scheme and reflecting on the much-delayed Seasonal Worker Scheme pilot review, launched on 24 December 2021.

“This is happening today in the UK. Both government and business can and should do more,” said Thornton.

In addition, some migrant workers in the UK have been deceived by promises of multi-year contracts, but due to late release of 8,000 visas, find themselves with only weeks of work and in substantial debt.

This is despite the UK government’s commitments to tackling modern slavery and the International Labour Organization stating that no recruitment fees or related costs should be charged to, or otherwise borne by, workers or jobseekers. However, in practice workers often have to take out loans at high interest rates or sign over assets and property to pay these fees and costs.

Therefore, the investor group is also calling on the government to bring the UK Seasonal Worker Scheme in line with these international commitments.

CCLA CEO Peter Hugh Smith said: “It is important that as investors, and effectively as owners of companies, we come together to help address the issue of modern slavery. It is so pervasive – likely in every supply chain – and as we see with this latest example, exists on our own soil. The City must step up and take action to ensure people are protected and that we are not profiting from hardship and misery.”

The full list of signatories is:

CCLA Investment Management
Canada Life Asset Management
Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church
Epworth Investment Management
Evelyn Partners
Pension Protection Fund
PIRC
Quilter Cheviot
Sarasin & Partners
Schroders

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Natasha Turner

Natasha was global editor at ESG Clarity, part of Mark Allen Financial, and a financial journalist for seven years. She has been shortlisted for Story of the Year and Investment Journalist of the Year...