MILTON, England -- Migrant workers from Central Asia hired for seasonal jobs on British farms say they're happy to be in Britain but wish they had more work.
Thousands of laborers from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan came to Britain this year under the U.K. government’s Seasonal Workers Scheme designed to address a severe shortage of farm workers due to Brexit.
The British government has said it will make available up to 40,000 six-month visas for foreign workers this year following warnings by farmers that fruit and vegetables would rot in fields without an overseas labor force.
"Our employers in a farm in Scotland gave us about 30 hours of work in a six-day week, instead of the 48 hours a week we were promised by recruiters before coming to Britain," said a fruit picker from Tajikistan.
"After deducting the cost of accommodation, utilities, national insurance, and food, there is almost nothing left from my wages at the farm. I came here to work and to take money home, but that didn't happen," he said.
Similar complaints have been made by other laborers from Central Asia working in different parts of Britain.
“Nowadays, we are getting a lot of work, fortunately. But in the first several weeks we didn’t have much to do,” said a 27-year-old Uzbek worker at a farm in Milton, Cambridgeshire, England.
“We want more work, we want overtime. During the six months that we’re here we need to earn enough money for our families back home and also to pay off debts we took for our journey to Britain,” he said.
The workers spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, saying they didn't want to "get in trouble" for speaking out.
The paycheck of a Central Asian worker in Milton shown to RFE/RL says he earned about $380 one week in August after paying for national insurance, which is required. A further $72 will be deducted from his wages every week for accommodation -- a small room inside a caravan -- that the farm provides.
Several workers from Central Asia told RFE/RL that before arriving in Britain they were promised a minimum of 48 hours of work per week at 10.10 pounds (about $12.20) per hour.
But some farms gave them new contracts after they arrived with fewer hours and a lower wage. One Central Asian worker who got a seasonal-worker visa in May said he was being paid 9.50 pounds (about $11.40) per hour, the British minimum wage.
Britain recently raised seasonal workers’ salaries from the minimum wage to a skilled workers' rate. According to the government's official guidelines, seasonal workers who received their visas on or after April 6 should be paid at least 10.10 pounds ($12.20) for each hour they work.
Fruitful Jobs, one of the major British companies that source overseas workers for U.K. businesses, denied that recruits in Central Asia were ever told they would be guaranteed 48 hours of work a week.
AGRI-HR, a company that recruits workers from Central Asia for Fruitful Jobs, also rejected the claim they had made such promises.
'Much Better Than Russia'
Millions of migrant workers from remittance-dependent Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan work on construction sites, farms, and factories in Russia.
Seasonal work on British farms was a new, welcome opportunity that thousands of Central Asians were excited to get.
One Uzbek worker in Milton said he makes more money and feels more comfortable in Britain, despite the language barrier. After working for five years for private construction firms in Russia, the 25-year-old from Marghelon Province came to Britain in May.
"In Russia I made about $500 a month on average. In Britain, I earned about $1,500 the past month," he told RFE/RL.
"There is never a guarantee in Russia that your employer will pay your wages," he said. "There is lawlessness in Russia, while in Britain I feel I am protected by the law."
A worker from Tajikistan said that he made "roughly the same" amount of money renovating private houses in Russia as he does picking vegetables in Britain. But he said he "never felt safe in Russia" and experienced racist discrimination and harassment both at the hands of employers and law-enforcement officers.
"Police in Russia would stop me on the streets just because I have a beard and I'm brown," he said.
Not all of the Central Asians are happy, however, with their living and working conditions in Britain.
'Mistreatment' By Supervisors
A 35-year-old worker from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, recently abandoned his work at the Barnsmuir Farm in Scotland citing "unbearable issues," including what he described as mistreatment by Eastern European supervisors.
The laborer, who was recruited for Fruitful Jobs through AGRI-HR, said his problems in Britain began when he arrived at Heathrow Airport with some 20 other Central Asian migrants on June 21.
"We were told by AGRI-HR that we'd be met at the airport by representatives of the farm that hired us, but there was nobody at the airport," he told RFE/RL.
When the group called AGRI-HR for help, a recruiting agency representative said the original offer of employment for the workers had "fallen through." Instead, they could work at the remote Barnsmuir Farm, he said the agent told the group, adding that the migrants must get to the farm by themselves.
The farm managers offered the minimum wage and a guaranteed minimum of 30 hours a week. The migrants who didn't speak English and had no money signed the new contracts.
"At work we faced mistreatment by the supervisors, who are from Bulgaria. They're rude and [verbally] abusive," the Tajik migrant claimed.
He added that he witnessed a supervisor "indecently touching a female worker" from Central Asia "despite the woman begging him to leave her alone."
The laborer said when he complained about the situation, the supervisors threatened him with dismissal and retaliated by cutting his working hours. The worker ended up getting only 13 hours of work in nine days, just enough to pay for accommodation and utilities, he said.
The problems at Barnsmuir Farm were reported to Wendy Chamberlain, a member of the British Parliament representing North East Fife, where the farm is located.
British citizen Hywel Philippart, who heard about the situation at the farm through one of his acquaintances, urged the lawmaker to address "abuses" allegedly taking place in her constituency.
RFE/RL obtained a copy of Philippart's letter to the lawmaker, detailing the problems at Barnsmuir, including arbitrary dismissals, a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and appalling living conditions.
Similar issues were earlier reported at two different farms in England by two other Central Asian workers -- a Kyrgyz and an Uzbek -- who have since abandoned their jobs.
Fruitful Jobs says it has since addressed most of the problems listed in the letter.
Justin Emery, managing director of the company, told RFE/RL that Fruitful Jobs representatives visited Barnsmuir Farm in late July after they received the complaint.
Emery acknowledged that language barriers can lead to "misunderstandings, tensions, or even conflict" between "experienced supervisors" from Eastern Europe and the new recruits, as Britain is looking farther afield than Europe to hire seasonal workers.
He said supervisors at Barnsmuir and several other farms had been sent for retraining.
Emery said temporary accommodations, including caravans that the farms offer to foreign workers, are checked by independent auditors to ensure they meet guidelines approved by the British government. He said workers have the right to rent alternative accommodations in nearby areas if they wish.
Most seasonal workers live in caravans with up to six people who pay about $72 a week each. They share a small kitchen and bathroom. But other farms offer larger accommodations with sports and leisure facilities.
Asked about the allegations of sexual harassment, Emery said: "We haven't received such a complaint. We take this issue extremely seriously and will have police involved if we get such complaints."
Meanwhile, the Tajik migrant has found a new job at a construction site near London. Seasonal workers are barred from working outside the farms that sponsor their visas. But the migrant said he needs to earn money for a return ticket and "a few hundred dollars to take home for the winter."
"I will leave just before my visa expires," he told RFE/RL on August 16.
Thousands More Want To Go To Britain
Britain's Seasonal Workers Scheme was first launched in 2019 and has been extended until 2024 as farms struggle to find manpower for harvesting and other jobs following the country's exit from the European Union, which made it difficult for citizens from EU countries to travel to Britain.
The farms that relied on workers from the poorer EU countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania before Brexit, are now hiring laborers from faraway countries like Indonesia, Mongolia, and Nepal.
According to a 2021 British parliament report, Ukrainians made up the majority of seasonal workers in Britain between 2019 and 2021.
Last year, 19,920 Ukrainians were granted seasonal work visas. Russians came in second with 2,278 visas, followed by Bulgarians and Belarusians. Tajikistan was also among the top five countries with 980 visas granted last year, the report said.
But the number of workers from Ukraine and Russia dropped dramatically this year because of the war in Ukraine, while the number of Central Asian applicants saw a rapid rise.
Central Asian social media posts indicate that thousands of Central Asians are currently searching for information about seasonal work in Britain.