'It's almost the same as living on the street'
TBIJ and VICE World News investigation: this is how people picking your vegetables have to live
“I could open a farm there,” Vadim Sardov, 24, joked about the inside of his caravan window, where it was so mouldy that plants started to sprout.
Sardov came to the UK from Kazakhstan last September on a British government visa scheme for farm workers. He worked at a packhouse in Essex for UK Salads, packing vegetables that would end up on the shelves of UK supermarkets including Aldi and Spar.
The packhouse was refrigerated, but the caravan he would go home to at night was almost as cold. At one point in November, he said, the temperature inside fell to just 8C (46F), even though the four people living there were spending up to £60 on electricity a week. Anything below 10C (50F) puts people at great risk of hypothermia.
“It’s almost the same as living on the street,” Sardov said.
Wind would blow in through vents and the caravan’s windows, which couldn’t be closed properly. Eventually he became sick. When he complained to his manager, he was told to tape up the vents with packing tape, he said. When this didn’t work, he was told that if he wasn’t happy, he could return to Kazakhstan.
Sardov’s case is not an isolated one. TBIJ and VICE World News spoke to nearly 50 workers who came to work on UK farms in 2022, and analysed data from the Work Rights Centre, a charity that advocates for the rights of migrants, about an additional 23 workers. Their accounts revealed a scheme where workers are often housed in unsafe and unsanitary conditions and with fewer protections than ordinary tenants – all allowed by loopholes in the rules.
“Even in our post-Soviet Union countries no one runs a business like that, by making people live in such terrible conditions,” Sardov said.
After being contacted by TBIJ and VICE World News, Spar said all its contracts with UK Salads would end by May. A spokesperson said: “We take the working conditions provided by our suppliers very seriously.”
UK Salads did not dispute the content of photographs supplied in the course of this investigation, but said it had “robust processes in place to safeguard employee welfare. This includes a programme of regular inspections of the services and accommodation we provide, and we encourage our tenants to raise any issues they may have… We also carry out a comprehensive maintenance programme and replace caravan accommodation when required.”
Mouldy, cold and damp
Every year, thousands of workers come from countries including Indonesia, Nepal and Ukraine to work in the UK on a six-month seasonal agricultural visa. Historically, the vast majority of the UK’s seasonal agricultural workers came from Europe, but after the Brexit vote, the visa scheme was launched in 2019 to cover anticipated labour shortages.
Before the first worker set foot on UK soil, however, labour rights organisations were criticising the scheme for putting people at risk of exploitation. Despite this, the government has rapidly expanded the maximum number of visas available – from 2,500 in 2019 to 55,000 in 2023.
Most of the workers who spoke to TBIJ stayed in caravans on the farms or businesses where they work. Having accommodation ready and waiting for a worker when they arrive removes the burden of having to find a home for the six months they are allowed to work in the UK. For farm owners, the set-up creates low-risk tenancies, since they deduct rent directly from workers’ payslips.
But the convenience of the arrangement can’t make up for some of the appalling conditions described by those interviewed for this investigation.
In total, 20 workers told TBIJ and the Work Rights Centre that they had problems with their housing, including leaking pipes, mice, and mouldy, cold and uninsulated caravans.
One worker, at Mains of Errol, a farm in Perthshire, Scotland, which supplies Sainsbury’s, said that he had to sleep with a blanket over his face because of water dripping from the ceiling. When he complained to his supervisor, he said he was told it would be fixed “next season”.
Mains of Errol said it checks all of its caravans annually, and had re-checked for leaks upon being contacted by TBIJ. A spokeswoman confirmed there had been a complaint about condensation and said he had been advised to open the windows to clear it. She added that it was rare to have people staying in the caravans at the time the complaint was made, early December, because it was out of season and “we don’t usually use the accommodation late in the year as it does get cold”.
She went on: “We can give you our assurance that every step is taken in ensuring that our site is a safe and healthy environment for our workforce.” She added that a private audit in 2021 had highlighted the farm as a “good example” for its accommodation.
Crowded and unsafe
At other farms, several workers reported overcrowding, leading to difficult and potentially unsafe living conditions. People had to sleep in living rooms or on beds too small to roll over in. There were even reports of people forced to share a double bed with a stranger. Some women said they felt unsafe sharing caravans with men, as they had no way of locking their bedroom doors.
When Fikile Masuku, 43, arrived from South Africa at the Edward Vinson’s Sandbanks farm in Kent, she was shocked to discover that she had to share a double bed with another woman she had never met before. The company, which supplies Tesco, Co-op and Lidl, offered only one solution: moving to another caravan where a group of men lived. Instead she slept on the sofa in the living room.
In a complaint sent to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) she said: “The warden came to the Caravan at 10pm and ordered me to leave the caravan No 34 and go to the other caravan, I refused to go. I had a sleepless night and I was very anxious and traumatised. I kept waking up all night thinking that the warden will come again to move me. I felt so vulnerable and unsafe.”
The GLAA said it investigated the matter and it did not find any modern slavery or licensing offences. It said that the worker was given the opportunity to work at another farm and that the authority could only take action against a farm if there was evidence of modern slavery.
Edward Vinson farms did not respond to a request for comments.
Co-op said: “We are concerned about the issues raised and have followed up with our supplier to investigate, as the safety and welfare of those who work within our supply chain is a priority. We are committed to working collaboratively to strengthen due diligence processes to support our growers and their workers and address the root cause of any issues identified in our supply chain.”
In other farms, interviewees reported sleeping in small caravans where farmers would house up to seven workers at a time, in shared rooms, with each paying as much as £85 per week. Often, workers have to pay extra for gas and electricity. Some farms also demand workers cover the cost of bed linen – one farm charged £15 for a duvet and pillows – and pay £1 a go to use the washing machines. There were examples of people having to bring their own crockery and space heaters.
“If you look at the cost per square metre it is very high, because these [caravans] are tiny,” said Dr Roxana Barbulescu, an associate professor at the University of Leeds who has researched living conditions for seasonal workers. Despite being old, worn out and cold, some caravans end up more expensive per square metre than a London flat, she added. A group of six workers could together be paying as much as £2,000 per month on rent.
It’s a sharp contrast to seasonal worker programmes in other countries, like the US, where accommodation costs are covered by the farm, or Canada, where the cost of accommodation is capped at CA$30 (£18) per week.
The Home Office says that substandard accommodation is the responsibility of local government, but in practice there is little that councils can do.
If a rented house or a flat was as cold as the 8C (46.4F) recorded in Sardov’s caravan, the local council would have the power to inspect and take action, ranging from instructing the owner to repair the property to ordering it to be demolished. But when it comes to caravans, councils have no power to enforce housing regulations – or even inspect them. “They are almost completely unregulated,” David Smith, a housing litigation partner at JMW Solicitors, said.
While some caravan sites have to be licensed, there is an exemption for those that house seasonal farm workers. Local authorities can ask the government for the right to license farm caravan sites, but rarely do so.
This leaves most of the enforcement responsibilities on two organisations, which have both suffered from underfunding in recent years: the Health and Safety Executive, which focuses on workplace health and safety, and the GLAA, which focuses on recruiters, rather than the farms themselves.
Even in the rare cases where workers were housed in hostels or houses, there were problems. Andrey, 24, worked at Homme Farm in Herefordshire, which supplies soft fruit to Morrisons, Tesco and Aldi. He lived with about 20 other workers in a hostel owned by the farm. It was often cold, and complaints were rarely dealt with, he said. At one point, a worker resorted to messaging the farm on Instagram in order to get issues resolved.
The farm required the workers to clean the hostel’s communal areas themselves. The bathroom was dirty and falling to pieces, with tiles missing from the wall, broken pipes and mouldy shower curtains.
“Most of the problems we have to solve on our own,” he said. “The UK government doesn’t regulate and doesn’t really pay close attention towards so-called sponsors and farmers.”
Homme Farm did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to the allegations at multiple farms, Aldi, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl directed TBIJ and VICE World News to a statement by the British Retail Consortium, which said: “Our
members are urgently reviewing the allegations raised by these workers, engaging with their primary suppliers to ensure a comprehensive investigation is undertaken.”
The cold, damp, mouldy caravan eventually drove Sardov out of his job and the UK. When he asked his recruiter for a transfer, he was denied. In the end the living conditions and his being constantly ill forced Sardov to return to Kazakhstan with several months left on his visa. He is now on a two-year visa working in a factory in Czechia. While the work there is just as hard, he at least sees a future there.
“You see many banners in the airport about modern technologies, high quality of medicine, etc,” he said, recalling his arrival in the UK. “But after this experience, for me, the UK is just one big, old and cold caravan … They should put banners with caravans, so people will know what to expect.”
Reporter: Emiliano Mellino
Additional reporting: Hajar Meddah
This investigation was first published on The Bureau for Investigative Journalism website here.