Changes are being pushed through by the Surrey based Association of Labour Providers (ALP) in consultation with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and retailers. “These discussions are fairly advanced and our concern is that they are being held without growers being included in the consultation process,” said Doug Amesz, director of AG Recruitment and Management in Kent.

If the plans succeed, recruitment costs will rise dramatically for an industry already hit by labour shortages. Last year, the average cost to the grower of recruiting someone through four agencies – AG Recruitment and Management, HOPS Labour Solutions Ltd, Concordia and Fruitful Jobs – was £70. This year, two of these companies appear to have begun adopting the employer pays principle, which is backed by the ALP. The principle stops offering optional services to workers and in doing so has passed that cost to growers. As a result of the two companies’ move, the average cost of recruiting a seasonal worker from these four agencies in 2018 has increased to £125. If all four agencies made the same changes, Mr Amesz said the average cost could rise to £200 per person.

The changes are aimed at reducing worker exploitation in line with the Modern Slavery Act. But while Mr Amesz accepts that it may be reasonable to expect growers to pay more for recruiting seasonal workers, they should not have to pay for transport as well. This could add a futher average cost of between £100 and £150 per person.

In the past, growers have paid recruitment companies a finder’s fee and workers were offered optional services. These have included things such as translating information about the conditions of living and working in the UK, processing documentation and filling in forms.

But now the GLAA have identified these services as work finding fees, which should not be charged to the worker. “The GLAA and retailers’ ethical teams are increasingly picking upon these services and telling agencies and growers that they disagree with certain optional services being offered,” said Mr Amesz.

Another optional service is pastoral care and welfare, which is sometimes offered to the worker. This optional service is valuable to a worker who wants a third party available to them whom they know and trust to give help whenever they need it while they are abroad.

In the case of transport, Mr Amesz said there was a strong argument that the new proposals would not reduce worker exploitation. “Right now if a worker comes into one of our offices in Romania or Bulgaria, we offer him or her a job and they will then organise their own transport to the UK which the worker will pay for. In future, if the employer is required to cover the cost of transport then the opportunity for vulnerable workers to be exploited could increase. It will be easier for someone unscrupulous to persuade workers to get on a bus at no cost, with a false promise and take them to an unknown destination. Under current European Union rules, we have freedom of movement without visas or controls. So workers can climb aboard a bus in one country and cross the continent without knowing where they are going. If they don’t have to pay for transport, they have no control over what is happening.

“Also, if workers are given free transport there is no guarantee that they will stay working on the farm.” If the employer pays principle is to be enforced, Mr Amesz said transport should be removed.

In the past, recruitment agencies have been offering optional services to candidate workers. But the employer pays principle will mean that growers have to cover the cost of these services. The concern for the recruitment agencies is that rather than go through them, growers will organise recruitment in house in an effort to save costs. The downside of this is that growers will then bear the responsibility of ensuring the workers are not being exploited.

“Going forward, if we are not able to innovate and if we are not able to offer optional services that are deemed valuable to workers, then growers will need to pay more for seasonal workers.”