Every year, innumerable articles appear in the UK media documenting widespread labour abuses and exploitation in the agricultural sector. One of the most recurring problems highlighted by investigative journalists regards illegal fees which workers are reported to have paid in the recruitment process for the Seasonal Worker Visa: leading to concerns and accusations of debt-bondage. Yet, despite these articles, there are no concrete accounts of how these fees, and the scams that underpin them, actually function. There is no real discussion about the widespread and central role they play in the international recruitment of migrant labour, especially for the UK’s agricultural sector.

Sitting down together, two former farmworkers – one, a Nepalese worker defrauded into paying fees, the other an investigative researcher – decided to outline this process as part of a wider workers’ inquiry project. The following workers’ testimony is the first of a series of accounts, proceeding from workers’ first-hand perspectives, about the realities of the Seasonal Worker Visa and the labour-process on UK farms.


How do we explain the fees workers paid?

‘Most workers we know paid fees in coming to work on farms in the UK. It all starts at the point of recruitment. If you want to break the chain, you have to get to the roots. You can talk about farms, conditions. This is all important. But this research, if it is to be effective, has to consider the roots, and this begins with fees. The main problem is that ‘agents’ – brokers, middlemen – sell fairy tales to people about the UK, giving people a false dream. We must send information to new applicants, from Nepal, from anywhere, to not believe these scammers. Don’t listen to anyone who spreads fairy tales. Only you yourself can apply to the Seasonal Worker Visa. If they say they have representatives in official companies, don’t believe them!

I have faced this problem. Later on, after applying, I came to know this: that I was a victim of fraud. I trusted that broker who sold me a lie. They told me they have a person in [the recruitment agency] already, an official employee, that they would arrange everything. They say this everywhere, not just in Nepal. In India, too, and Indonesia. Everywhere. Every broker says the same thing: they have their representative at the licensed recruitment company…’

Who are these brokers? Why do people go to them in the first place?

‘Nepal is a country where lots of people are willing to go abroad for work, to achieve their dreams, to look after their family. In 2022, in just 7 months from January to July, over 200,000 Nepalese workers migrated overseas for work.1 For many years, the way people do this is through brokers. The brokers have connections to manpower agencies, local recruitment agencies in Nepal, and these brokers have years of experience of arranging documents for workers to go to places like Qatar and Dubai, for work. Legally, manpower agencies should hire workers directly. It is illegal for them to use third-party brokers. But in reality, they rely on these brokers, these agents. The brokers go around advertising opportunities, and they bring candidates themselves to the manpower agencies. Most workers cannot go direct. They are busy, they have to work, or to farm. But these brokers spend their time doing this, spreading the word, and charging candidates fees. It’s just how it happens. Lacking education, many peking education, many people trust them, for their information and because of their education level. And people are desperate for the opportunity of a better future, of better earnings.

In rural Nepal, candidates are forced by their own families to go through the broker because they are living in poverty. The broker gives fake news: only 10% true and 90% false. They manipulate peoples’ desperation and dreams. It’s all because of poverty, all because of a lack of opportunity, of poor living standards, of family situations. That’s why they do this. That’s why workers give their passports and pay fees. They are desperate.

Some brokers have been caught out by more educated candidates. They have exposed the brokers, and some have been arrested, and even money returned to candidates. But most of these brokers are not afraid. They still carry on doing this. They are used to it. It’s their business. The government has officially given notice that there should be no brokers working in the manpower field. They should be arrested. But if you go outside the manpower offices, you will see brokers like ants! Manpower agencies will never fulfil their demand without them.’

So, in a way, these brokers control the labour market?

‘Of course, they control the whole labour business, the whole labour market. In some rural parts of Nepal, these brokers hold so much power. They hold all these peoples’ passports. They apply for whatever they want, and they can ask whatever they want from candidates. They can totally extort them. This is the system in Nepal! This is the route! This is the main problem for coming to the UK for Nepalese, and for many others in other countries.

The brokers have so much experience sending people abroad, people just go to them. They know how to say the right thing at the right time, so candidates are forced to believe them. They work out these tricks and use them for years. It’s their strategy. They control and manipulate information, spreading fake news about great opportunities. ‘In my nearest Manpower, there is demand, come fast!’, they say things like this. The brokers manipulate each and every candidate. They don’t speak to groups. They don’t get candidates together in a room and talk. They target people individually. Easy for them to manipulate.

So, those poor candidates who go through them, they are forced to trust them, because in the mind of the candidate they only think of the good things: the good opportunity, good earnings, good job, good life. They are just thinking of how to get good work and a better life. How to get money for their families. The brokers, they take advantage of their emotions, of their feelings.

Trust is a big thing. If one candidate knows a broker, and this broker is a well-known person to them, like a close friend or family member, which often happens, then everyone they know follows them. There is a kind of blind trust. For example, one girl we knew, she paid approximately £12,000 to come to the UK through a broker – this broker was her cousin. For some of us, many of us, it was our friend. This one friend, his family said that they could apply to the UK Seasonal Worker Visa through their connections to a local agency, so we went through them.

So, these are the problems, and the main thing is to break the chain of these brokers. We need a solution to this, to make the process reliable and easy, so no one has to go through these brokers.’

How exactly does this process work for recruitment to the UK’s Seasonal Worker Visa?

‘Everyone hears about the Seasonal Worker Visa. It comes on the news. Brokers and candidates hear about it. But brokers, their first thought is ‘now is our opportunity to make money’. Many people do not know how to use the internet for applications, how to use it properly, how the process works. There is a lack of information everywhere about recruitment, and a lack of education. The brokers are ten steps ahead of the candidates. The brokers make them victims, they take people for fools.

The broker tells them to pay fast to secure a visa, and that they can quickly advance their documents to the recruitment agency. And they tell them that if they pay later, if they pay last, then they’ll miss out, they won’t get the opportunity. They spread competition, they say to every candidate that there are lots of people applying, queueing. Candidates get afraid. They think, ‘if I don’t give them money, I’ll be last, I won’t get a job, I won’t get a place on the visa.’ They play this trick on candidates. The candidates only think about the UK and money. They don’t care at that moment how much they have to pay, because they trust they will make good earnings in the UK.

So, candidates take loans and pay money to the broker, and they also give the broker their passport. Then the broker applies online, to the official recruitment agency, simply by ‘being’ that candidate. They pose as the candidate. If one broker has ten candidates, then they make ten individual Gmail accounts and apply through them, acting as if they were that candidate, by posing as them. Later on, if the visa doesn’t arrive and they have paid, the broker tells them not to worry, that they will have a place next year…

And once you start the process, they have more power. Whatever emails come and go between their accounts (pretending to be us) and the official recruitment agency – all of this is kept from us. We are kept in the dark. The broker then has all the information: where we need to go and what we need to do. But they only tell us when we need to do something. For example, attending the visa service appointment, where they take our fingerprints and photograph. When the date arrives for this scheduled appointment, only the broker knows it, because they created the fake email accounts. So, at this stage, to reveal the date of our appointment, they ask for even more money. Another one or two lakhs [one lakh = 100,000 Nepalese rupees = £616]2. Then, after the appointment, if the application is finally successful and we receive our visa – again it is the agent, the broker, who receives it, and they charge us more money still to give us our visa and return our passport. They control you at every step.

So the official, licensed recruitment agency, they think it’s me applying direct! But it’s a broker! And they only give us the email and password they created after we pay everything and when the process is successful. Along the way, they threaten candidates: ‘if you don’t pay, your documents won’t go anywhere.’ People are desperate for this opportunity, so they will pay. There is so much unemployment in Nepal. Brokers also spread lies, lots of nonsense, like they say to people that if you work in UK through the Seasonal Worker Visa, and then return a second time, then you get a five-year visa. They fool people with these lies. They have so many years of experience, playing with peoples’ minds, using manipulative words.

It’s so deep, this scam. It’s deeper than the sea. I know how it works. I’ve worked in jobs through manpower agencies for eight years. So, there must be a better system, an authorised application system that can be properly controlled, with proper information. Otherwise, this will continue to happen. Not just in Nepal, but everywhere.’

A viral 2023 Tik Tok video in Nepal shows two brokers being questioned by officials from the Ministry of Labour. These screenshots show Nepalese passports and applications for the UK Seasonal Worker Visa, taken by brokers as part of a scam in advance of the 2023 season (from user @BikramDahal40.)


Do people dealing with brokers know they are using fake emails?

‘We didn’t even know they had done this! They kept us in the dark about it. We trusted them, like most people, because of family and friendship connections. Many people are scammed in this way, through trusted friends. Until the process was finished, we thought they were doing everything the correct way. We trusted they wouldn’t take advantage of us. Only after did we realise you have to do it individually. Before that, we thought that this was the way to do it. It’s how everybody does it.

They told us they had connections with people in [Recruitment Agency], and that this was how to apply. Only later, after our visas arrived and our passports were returned, did we get access to the emails, which we then needed to communicate with [Recruitment Agency] in the UK. Only then we saw that they have done it this way, applying like they were us, individually. We pieced it together afterwards, and realised ‘oh, this is not good’. Before, we trusted them.

So, we realised all this the day before we travelled to the UK. That it was all fake. All a lie. That we had been scammed. We thought at that stage there’s no point arguing. What could we do? Let’s just go and see what happens.’

In the UK, how many workers do you think were recruited like this, by having to pay fees?

‘In the UK, easily 70% or more of Nepali workers paid fees. Maybe even 80%. I haven’t met many people who applied by themselves, or who did not pay fees. It’s the most common problem for farmworkers in the UK. We also came to know that other workers paid fees. We talked with them: Indonesian workers, Indian workers, Uzbek workers… When Indonesian workers arrived on our farm, they all came from one single company, one single recruitment agency. I asked them if they paid fees. They all paid more or less the same amount as Nepalis.’

How much, on average, did these workers pay?

‘Most Nepali workers paid around 6 or 7 lakhs in total [7 lakhs = 700,000 Nepalese Rupees = £4,316]. Some paid more. I told you, one girl paid £12,000. But most people paid around 6 or 7 lakhs.’

You mentioned before that workers have to take out loans to pay these fees. Where do they take these loans from?

‘They are forced to take out loans, often high interest rate loans. Most people take these loans from moneylenders. They will pawn their goods, their gold, at high interest, in order to take these loans. Everybody does it. Everybody takes loans to be able to afford these fees and come to the UK.

The moneylenders are the rich people in the village. The landlord who owns lots of land and leases his land to tenant farmers. We call it ‘zamindar’ (‘landlord’) – a moneylender who gives loans. Like brokers, they are very clever at manipulating candidates. Some moneylenders, they know where candidates live, so they arrange the paperwork for the candidates to sign over their houses, and their land, as collateral. The paperwork says that if they don’t pay back the loan in time, then after a certain point the interest will increase. And if they still don’t pay back, then they’ll take the house and the land of the candidate. They force candidates to sign these documents. Poor people are the easiest for moneylenders to manipulate. To go to a bank, you need lots of documents, lots of paperwork. But a moneylender will easily give these people a loan because they know they can take advantage.

I know lots of that stuff. I haven’t done it. But I know people who have fallen victim to this. They are people living in poverty, poor people. It’s hard for them to arrange one lakh or two lakh in one or two months, so they are forced by circumstance to go and take a loan from that kind of lender.’

Did people do this to pay fees for the Seasonal Worker Visa?

‘Not signing over houses. I haven’t met anyone who did that for the Seasonal Worker Visa. But I have seen many innocent people do that kind of thing to work overseas in the past. But people have still taken lots of money for SWV. Most of them have taken loans in different ways from different people. I was able to take a loan from the bank. I put my wife’s gold in the bank as collateral. I took three lakhs of loan, at interest of 8.5%, now increased to 12%. And I took 2 lakh loan from one neighbour, and just under 2 lakh from another. So overall 7 lakh to pay the broker’s fee.’

Have you been able to pay it back?

‘Of course not man! How can I? Workers have to survive here, paying rent, paying for food. We also need to send money back to our families to support them, to provide them food, and to provide for our kids, for their school. So I send some for paying back loans, some for my household, while paying a lot to survive here myself. At the root of all this is the money paid to the broker. That’s how it all started. That was the beginning. I am still in this debt. If I hadn’t paid all that money to the broker for the SWV, I would not be in this situation of debt.’

How much money is it possible to earn working on the Seasonal Worker Visa?

We know most workers do not receive continuous work for six months, and are subject to particular obstacles on farms themselves (like wage-theft and regular lay-offs), which further depress their earnings. But assuming regular, consistent work and a decent wage: is it possible for workers to recuperate their losses and repay these loans?

‘It depends. We can calculate this. I worked on one farm for twenty weeks: a full five months, with regular work. Overall, I earned £11,200. Over £1,000 of this was deducted for tax, and £700 for National Insurance. So £9,500 after tax. In that amount, the farm deducted £1,000 for rent. So £8,500. Then gas, electricity, we also had to pay a lot for this. And we have to eat, for five months, we have to buy all that. That’s easily £50 or £60 per week for each individual, probably more. Say average £60 per week. So overall spending £1,200 on food for the entire time for twenty weeks, this gives us £7,300. Then taking the bus to supermarket: this cost almost £5 each time. Then, of course, we also need to pay for other things, like clothing, footwear, and jackets. And weekend gatherings, money for tobacco, alcohol. Everybody does this. So take £1,000 overall for that. So now £6,300. And of course travel costs to get to the farm. One trip cost us £110 each. So, in my calculations, I have earned overall around £5,000-£6,000. That is, I have saved approximately £5,000-£6,000. So, if you consider these necessary expenses, and then look at the fees and loans: overall, there is no saving. I had to pay 6 lakhs to the broker in Nepal, then spend another 1 lakh for things to bring here, so 7 lakh in total (£4,358). So overall, no savings, because we all have to pay off all this – the loan for the broker’s fee, and also money for our families to support them, money for our children’s education.

So, if someone comes to work via the SWV without paying fees to a broker, they could earn approximately 9-12 lakh. This would be their gross income. After expenses, grocery expenses, transportation, and other costs, they will surely be able to save 6 or 7 lakh, but only if they come at the right time and have full work. Most people will never get the chance to work regularly for the full six-month period.

The overall cost of living on a farm is between 3-4 lakhs. If someone earns 10-12 lakh, they will save 6-8 lakhs. But if someone pays 6-7 lakhs to the broker, how will they save anything? Nobody comes here just to work and pay a loan. They don’t come here just to see the UK. They came here to earn money. And people need to send money to their family. Everybody has in their mind at the beginning – I will go to UK and work and save some money, and I will send money back to my home, my family, then I’ll come back home, and again I’ll apply next year. That’s what all people think. But when the broker has already taken 6 or 7 lakhs from you, then how will you save money? How will you look after your family? If my living cost is 3.5 lakh here, then surely my family’s living cost will be more than 3.5 lakh back home, because it’s a whole family. So if the broker takes 6 or 7 lakh, how can you save money? How can you send money to your family? How can you repay the loan? So, for many people on SWV, they say we have just come here to pay off our loans. We won’t earn any money. We are just paying off our loans.

I want to say: whose fault is this? Who do we blame? The recruitment agency? The government? The brokers? Who is taking responsibility for workers being robbed in broad daylight? This is the question we must ask clearly and in bold. We have to criticise the whole sector. We must put one big question mark here: who is responsible? We need to look at the whole system. If there was one simple system that applied to everyone, with clear instructions and a good information-providing service, then this kind of situation would never have arisen.

Do people want this to continue? If not, if people care about this, then we need a new system. If nobody cares, if nobody wants to know, if people want to let us fall into this situation, then it will continue. If not in Nepal, then in other countries. We need NGOs, protests. We need a solution.’

What should be done to solve these problems?

‘The UK government, if they want to hire people for the Seasonal Worker Visa, could give the opportunity via one authorised department of the country they are recruiting from. Whether it be Nepal, India, Indonesia… Everywhere. They must give a trusted authority, an official organisation, the ability to sponsor workers. If licensed recruitment agencies had connections with the Nepalese Department of Labour, they could hire people through that department, with clear information provided. This official public organisation, they could check to make sure people have not been scammed along the way: a regulated and safe way to recruit.

They should also establish an information centre to go alongside this, to spread the correct and accurate information: to make it clear that people can only apply through the official department. They should advertise how many places there are, and make it a fair process.’

What about those who have already been scammed? Is there anything that can be done to help them?

‘If the recruitment agencies really want to help these people get their money back, they could simply do one thing: send one email to the authorised labour department of Nepal, detailing lists of people who had reported being scammed. They could encourage an investigation of those incidents, of what happened to their workers. Maybe in this way people could be helped. But I don’t think this will happen.

For the next season, and for the wider future, they must establish a trusted and official communication centre so that everyone who wants to apply receives the correct information and applies via that official centre. Only after visiting such a centre, after collecting the documents from that official centre, only then should applicants be processed and accepted. There also has to be more effort for spreading clear information, an information campaign, before recruitment. They have to give workers in each country a clear chance, so that everyone has a chance, so everyone can proceed directly without fear of scams, without fear of missing out if they don’t pay money.

If they really care about looking after the wellbeing of workers who come here to the UK, they must do these simple things. They only have to establish one centre, with clear lines of communication between the official recruitment agencies and the governments of each country.

This is how it works for going to Dubai, or Qatar, from Nepal. There is an official visa centre in Kathmandu for this. Everyone who wants to go to these places for work has to go through that visa centre to receive their application form, to do the biometric appointment. Centres like this have solved a lot of problems: in the past, people would go to Qatar and fail medical tests, then be sent home, losing lots of money. Now, they do everything like this in the official visa centre, so it’s better for those workers going to Qatar now. It’s such a simple thing, not complicated.4

Surely they could do something similar for recruitment to the UK. Official centres where applications are accepted, and any instance of fraud can be reported, those brokers could be stopped and caught. Some guidance to walk through, step-by-step, for the candidates, would be very helpful.

If they want to hire workers in the future from other countries, they must establish a trusted branch in that country where people can be hired safely. This would also help the UK, to stabilise the worker shortages, to create a fair system and put food back on the shelves.

If they want to help their own farming sector, they must listen and take our advice. Otherwise, these fees and scams will simply continue everywhere they go to recruit. It’s all a circle – if recruitment agencies take just one simple action, it will impact the whole system: for farmers, for workers, for the economy. If the system is fair and clear, workers will come to the UK with a fresh mind, a positive attitude, and contribute to the economy, solving the problems of food and labour shortages. And they will return as well, reliable for all parties.

We have to look after labour. The recruitment agencies need to look after labour, and not ignore us, like they did.’

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  1. In 2021, over 600,000 Nepalese workers migrated overseas to the Gulf States for work. See: Rai, Diwakar (1 Nov 2022) ‘Why Nepal sends so many migrant workers to the Middle East’, DW

  2. Conversion rate at time of interview (April 2023). 

  3. The full video can be found here at @bikramdahal40 on TikTok. 

  4. Editor’s note: ‘Free-Visa, Free-Ticket’ programmes have also been introduced between Nepal and the GCC to facilitate fairer recruitment of migrant workers, although their effectiveness has been called into question. See: Pandey, Pawan (11 May 2023) ‘Task force studying effectiveness of free-visa, free-ticket policy’, The Kathmandu Post. 


An Anonymous Farmworker

has worked as a seasonal farmworker