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Protecting Romanian seasonal migrant workers after Covid-19

Project exploring challenges posed by the pandemic for the UK agricultural industry.

Despite playing a critical role and representing approximately 40% of the UK food industry workforce, migrant workers are highly prone to exploitation. Romanian nationals, who make up majority of the British agricultural sector’s 90,000 seasonal workers, rarely report labour exploitation cases that they or those around them experience. Yet, they have also consistently been among the top ten nationalities referred to the UK's National Referral Mechanism as potential victims of modern slavery.

The measures imposed to control the Covid-19 pandemic have significantly affected the sector. Media reports during the pandemic reported abuses of workers, who were not provided with protective equipment, were forced to live in crowded and unsanitary conditions and in some cases had their contracts terminated before they even started working, leaving them stranded abroad with no means to return home.

A research team led by the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, in collaboration with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), Fresca Group, Pro-Force recruitment agency, anti-slavery charity Justice and Care, Work Rights Centre and Roma Support Group, are working on a project assessing the impact of Covid-19 on the exploitation risks for Romanian seasonal workers in the UK’s agricultural sector.

Current literature focuses mainly on providing individual stories of labour exploitation and trafficking and migration journeys that come with it. This project pushes the boundaries further and is developing a quantitative analysis by using paper and online surveys to build a broader picture of the challenges that Romanian seasonal workers face in the UK, complemented by a policy review and in-depth interviews with enforcement agencies, businesses and recruitment agencies.

By employing a wide collaboration with non-academic partners that embodies the vision of the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, the project is aiming to extend its impact well beyond the academia.

It aims to identify lessons that have been drawn from this pandemic and recommend policy and practice changes that may assist with mitigating current challenges and future crises. It will encourage businesses to adapt their modern slavery statements and practice in line with the findings of the research.

The findings will also be highly relevant to Justice and Care, a partner NGO in this project, informing its campaign for Romanian workers travelling abroad for work helping them protect themselves from being exploited.

It will also allow enforcement agencies, including GLAA, to gain a better understanding of the obstacles that low skilled workers may face when they want to report labour exploitation and debt bondage, and how to empower workers to better protect themselves.

Finally, this research will inform businesses and the government of the measures that they can take to ensure the well-being of migrant workers in light of potential new Covid waves or other future crises, such as potential disruption triggered by Brexit.

This project was commissioned under the Modern Slavery PEC call for research on the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery.

Research team: Dr Oana Burcu, Dr Alison Gardner, the Rights Lab, University of Nottingham.