Indonesia to investigate claims fruit pickers charged thousands to work in Kent | Immigration and asylum

A presidential taskforce in Indonesia is investigating the recruitment of fruit pickers who say they took on debts of up to £5,000 to secure jobs in Kent.

The Guardian revealed that Indonesian labourers harvesting berries on a farm that supplies Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco had reported facing thousands of pounds in charges to unlicensed brokers in Bali to get work for a single season in the UK.

One worker told the Guardian how he staked his family home in Bali as surety on the debt and feared losing it. Migrant rights experts said the potential to be trapped in debt bondage put workers at risk of essentially forced labour.

Hundreds of Indonesian farm workers were recruited to work in farms across Britain this summer on seasonal worker visas, the immigration route created to tackle a shortage of farm workers after Brexit.

The Indonesia Migrant Workers Protection Bureau (BP2MI), a presidential taskforce, dispatched four officers to investigate brokers across multiple islands last week. They are understood to still be in the field.

The chair of BP2MI, Benny Rhamdani, said in a statement he was “disturbed” by the allegations of overcharging for jobs abroad and that it was “a very serious problem”.

Rhamdani added: “This practice is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. Overcharging is part of the crime of exploitation of workers.”

He said he was frustrated that no representative from the UK government had yet met them to help move on their investigations.

The British embassy in Jakarta told BP2MI it was up to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) to discuss it and they were arranging a first meeting with them this week.

A UK investigation by the GLAA into the recruitment process is ongoing. The supermarkets have offered support and are pushing to make sure any remediation owed to workers is paid.

Many of the Indonesian workers brought to the UK this summer ended up at Clock House farm near Maidstone in Kent, which supplies soft fruit to most major supermarkets.

Clock House said it remained “deeply concerned” about the allegations and that it had innocently relied on a licensed recruitment agent in good faith.

The workers were supplied by AG Recruitment, one of four UK agencies licensed to recruit using seasonal worker visas. AG denied any wrongdoing and said it knew nothing about Indonesian brokers charging money.

AG had been intending to recruit from Ukraine before war broke out and had no previous experience in Indonesia. It sought help from Jakarta-based Al Zubara Manpower, which in turn went to brokers on other islands who charged exorbitant fees to the people they introduced, according to one Al Zubara agent.

The managing director of AG Recruitment, Douglas Amesz, thanked the Guardian for “shining a spotlight on the vulnerabilities of these workers and exposing the malpractice that took place in Indonesia”.

Amesz met workers from Bali in Jakarta who remember him telling them they should not pay any fees for jobs and that it was illegal. But they said local brokers told them not to disclose what they paid.

Amesz said he was in contact with the Indonesian authorities and was “keen to understand the events that took place [there]”.

He said AG was conducting its own investigation “by contacting our Indonesian workers directly and collaborating with our client growers to interview workers. Their welfare is our primary concern”

Two days after the Guardian article was published, Al Zubara had its Indonesian licence to recruit to the UK suspended for 48 hours. The Ministry of Manpower said the suspension had been a “warning” and that it was lifted “because Al Zubara has committed to solve the problem and provide protection for Indonesian migrant workers”.

A spokesperson for Clock House, one of several UK farms to which AG provided Indonesian workers, said: “It would seem to be helpful for the [British] government and AG in particular to explain how these issues can occur if they have carried out adequate due diligence and there is a thorough process in place?”

They said the farm, which would not take more workers from Indonesia, “should be able to rely on the government and the four approved suppliers but it seems clear it is not able to and nor is it permitted to use any other source. [It] has therefore set up its own process to both try and prevent recurrence and help those that may be affected.”

A GLAA spokesperson said this type of investigation was “often difficult and complex” and that it was “committed to working in partnership with other law enforcement agencies and NGOs to tackle this issue.”

The spokesperson said it did not have jurisdiction outside the UK to investigate allegations of labour exploitation but would “look to offer whatever assistance the GLAA can”.

Andy Hall, an independent migrant rights specialist who investigates issues of forced labour in supply chains in Asia, said the farms, supermarkets, recruiters and law enforcement in both countries needed to make a concerted effort to address the allegations.

“Passing the buck and claiming a lack of primary remit or responsibility for solving these cross-border issues by any of these actors in either country must stop,” he said.

A government spokesperson said improvements to stop exploitation had been made every year to the seasonal worker scheme since it was set up three years ago.

Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the BRC, said the supermarkets were “ready to support any investigations and remain committed to upholding high standards of welfare for all people who work in their supply chains”. He added: “We are liaising with government, the permit operators, and farmers, to ensure the Seasonal Workers Scheme continues to protect labour rights as it recruits workers from further afield.”

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