Emily Dugan – A British recruitment agency that brought Indonesian farmworkers to the UK who had debts of thousands of pounds to foreign brokers has lost its licence as a seasonal worker sponsor.
More than 1,450 Indonesians were brought to Britain last year by AG Recruitment to pick berries and other fruits to supply British supermarkets.
The Guardian revealed that some owed as much as #5,000 to unlicensed foreign brokers when they arrived in Britain, despite only having work for a single season. AG denied any wrongdoing and said it had known nothing about Indonesian brokers charging money.
Douglas Amesz, its managing director, said he was "devastated" to receive notice from the Home Office of its licence being revoked on Wednesday and that the process had been "very unfair and unjust".
AG sought workers in Indonesia at short notice last year when war broke out in Ukraine, where the company had previously done most of its recruitment.
Amesz said: "We've always had the absolute best intentions for everyone ... I would never have been in Indonesia if it wasn't for that stupid war. And a year on, my business has just gone down the toilet."
More than 200 Indonesian fruit pickers brought to the UK by AG asked for diplomatic help last year after facing difficulties working in Britain. Many arrived late in the season and found there was not enough work on farms to repay their substantial debts.
About 100 are understood to have gone underground to stay in Britain and work on the black market rather than risk returning home with little or no money once their debts were paid. Some tried to claim asylum.
It is understood this overstaying was the primary reason AG lost its licence, since the terms state that at least 97% of workers should return home on time.
Andy Hall, an independent migrant rights specialist who investigates forced labour in supply chains in Asia, said: "Thousands of vulnerable workers have faced conditions akin to forced labour and debt bondage due to the negligence of seasonal worker scheme operators, including AG Recruitment, the broader framework of a failing seasonal worker scheme and sponsorship licence system, as well as the failures of the UK's largest retailers and farms to protect this essential workforce from such abuses.
"Conditions created by the seasonal worker scheme structure remain ripe and conducive to worker overstays as a means for these desperate workers to ensure a return on their considerable investments expended to come to the UK. Systemic reform of the scheme is therefore urgent and essential."
To bring seasonal workers into Britain, recruiters must be a licensed sponsor. The Home Office stressed that a condition of holding the licence was "prevent[ing] abuse of immigration laws and sponsorship arrangements, such as illegal working, including in breach of conditions and ineffective recruitment practices."
A Home Office spokesperson said: "All those who benefit directly from migration are responsible for ensuring the immigration system is not abused. We will always take decisive action if sponsors break the rules. We do not comment on individual cases."
Amesz said: "We're not a police force ... When workers overstay, we have absolutely no jurisdiction, no control, no influence whatsoever."
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) has been investigating AG's Indonesian recruitment but this has not yet concluded. AG still holds a GLAA licence to recruit.