EXCLUSIVE: Union launches legal action with seasonal worker against UK fruit farm

UVW union believes it is the first legal challenge at an Employment Tribunal (ET) by a seasonal worker

One of the UK’s biggest fruit producers is facing a legal challenge from a seasonal migrant worker and her union over allegations of harassment and discrimination at a farm in Herefordshire.

United Voices of the World (UVW) union believe it is the first claim of its kind, marking the first time a seasonal worker has launched a legal challenge at an Employment Tribunal.

UVW are supporting the claimant Julia Quencaño Casimiro, a Bolivian national residing in Chile, who is launching the legal proceedings against the fruit company Haygrove Limited.

Julia was one of a group of migrant seasonal workers recruited from Chile in 2023, the first year the recruitment of seasonal workers from Latin America was opened under the UK government’s continued expansion of the Seasonal Worker Visa scheme.   

In July, Julia led the first recorded wildcat strike by seasonal workers in the UK at a farm in Herefordshire, which saw some 88 workers walk out over health and safety concerns, claims of wage theft and alleged degrading working conditions.

Workers felt pushed to take strike action after finding out they would be charged over £400 more than the cost of the flight they had agreed to pay back. Haygrove has since accepted this was a mistake and is investigating the overcharge with their travel agents.

According to Julia, after the strike action her and dozens of other workers were forced to flee the farm over the working conditions and pay.

Commenting on the wildcat strike, the claimant Julia said: “They think we are ignorant and that we don’t have a say. But we know that we are in the 21st century and we have information and a way to take this forward. So we said we’re going to continue and we weren’t afraid.”

The union has raised allegations of whistleblowing victimisation after health and safety issues were raised at the farm, as well as an alleged breach of contract, with the employer accussed of failing to provide from day one the 42 hours of work Julia was verbally promised when she was recruited in Chile leading to the loss of hundreds of pounds, the union has claimed.

Haygrove has refuted all allegations and called them “materially factually incorrect and misleading”. The company pointed to “unprecedented cold weather in July” which meant workers were unable to start work immediately at the time of arrival.

The company stated that workers’ hours, pay and payslips have been audited by both the Home Office and the GLAA, with no discrepancies or wrongdoing.

Allegations of bullying or discrimation were also refuted.

The company wrote: “Our business recruits and employs more than 1,000 seasonal workers annually from many countries on our UK farms, and we take great care in ensuring fairness and equality when doing so.”

The union has alleged that bosses threatened to remove shifts as “punishment” for not picking enough fruit, as well as allegations of harassment and discrimination including threatening dismissal, subjecting Julia to excessive pressure.

Haygrove has denied picking tagets are used to punish, but instead to “identify, and offer additional hours to, high performing workers” and has said team leaders and supervisors do not tell workers to pick faster or shout.

It follows an extensive investigation into the treatment of migrant workers on farms across the UK by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which raised questions about the Home Office’s response to welfare issues raised in recent farm inspection reports.

Petros Elia, UVW general secretary, hoped the tribunal will expose the “massive shortcomings” in the government’s “so-called regulations” on seasonal work visas.

“The entire seasonal worker scheme is a disgrace which is a gift to the bosses at the expense of even the most basic freedoms most workers have, such as the right to resign and find alternative work, something they can’t legally do even if their rights are being systematically violated,” said Petros Elia.

“We call on all workers, seasonal or otherwise, to stand up and fight and never accept being treated as anything but an equal.”

A preliminary hearing has been set for March, 2024.

(Image credit: UVW union)

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