LONDON, Nov 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Seasonal migrant workers employed under a British government scheme to minimize labour shortages after Brexit must be protected from debt bondage and slavery, campaigners and lawmakers said on Wednesday.
Critics say the pilot scheme to allow 2,500 migrants from non-European Union nations to work on farms for up to six months is "fundamentally flawed" because the upfront visa and travel costs could leave workers vulnerable to debt bondage.
Tying workers to employers in the agricultural sector may also encourage exploitation as they may be reluctant to report abuse fearing deportation, campaigners and lawmakers have argued.
Challenged on the issue in parliament on Wednesday, Britain's interior minister Sajid Javid pledged to keep it in mind.
But Caroline Robinson, director of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), said the scheme established a problematic precedent.
"This kind of scheme is fundamentally flawed," Robinson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If this how we want to run our labour market, it will become more risky for workers in relation to modern slavery and certainly would threaten our intentions to become a world leader in that regard," she said.
From fruit orchards to coffee shops, European workers are a key plank in the British economy, and the government is scrambling to ensure firms have enough workers to fill the gap once Britain leaves the EU in March and free movement ends.
There are about 136,000 modern slaves in Britain according the Walk Free Foundation's 2018 Global Slavery Index - about 10 times more than a 2013 government estimate.
Agriculture is high-risk as it relies on low-skilled seasonal workers who sometimes face exploitative wages, unsanitary working and living conditions and even physical attacks from supervisors, experts say.
Robinson said Britain's anti-slavery body, Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, should inspect living and working conditions on these farms, and there should be ways for seasonal migrant workers to report abuse, such as a 24-hour hotline.
"So far the statements that we've seen from government have been very focused on satisfying the demands coming from the farming industry and not looking at what the real risk to workers is," she said.
Britain is considered an international leader in the fight against slavery having passed the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to jail traffickers for life, better protect vulnerable people, and compel large businesses to address the threat of forced labor.
Alex Norris, a member of parliament for the opposition Labour party who quizzed Javid on the issue on Wednesday, welcomed the commitment to evaluate the scheme.
"It's really important that the new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme doesn't create debt bondage. Delighted to secure a commitment from @sajidjavid that he will check this as part of the project evaluation," Norris posted on Twitter.