‘My family needs my support to eat’: how Indonesians came to work on a Kent farm | Immigration and asylum
SSettled in a caravan in the warm Kent countryside, Banyu’s face is etched with worry. It’s July and he’s been working for less than a month picking fruit at Clock House Farm near Maidstone, which supplies strawberries, raspberries and other berries to major supermarket chains.
He says he arrived from Indonesia this summer £5,000 in debt with an unlicensed broker in Bali, handing over the deeds to his family home as collateral. He only has a six-month visa for the picking season and is afraid the job won’t be as lucrative as he hoped.
“Now I’m working hard just to pay that money back,” Banyu (pseudonym) said in a video call from the trailer he shares with five other men. “Sometimes I get stressed. I can’t sleep sometimes. I have a family that needs my support to eat. And meanwhile, I’m thinking about the debt.
Clock House, which featured in a Marks & Spencer advert last fall and operates under the slogan ‘Growing a better tomorrow’, employs around 1,200 people a season to pick raspberries, strawberries, plums, blackberries and apples .
Brexit had already made it difficult to find pickers, a situation exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last year, the majority of Clock House workers came from Ukraine, and the farm expected about 880 people to return.
After war broke out and the men were told not to leave Ukraine, Clock House went to an approved British agency to find workers from Indonesia and Vietnam.
The farm’s recruitment manager, Jane Packham, told Farming Today on BBC Radio 4 that when she tried to find British workers, 7,000 people made contact, but only 100 actually started work and “about one” held up.
Packham said it was “probably not surprising”. “It’s a different kind of work, we’re not used to it – I couldn’t do it… You have to have the eye for it, you have to have the speed for it and you have to be relentless.
During his first month, Banyu struggled to choose fast enough. He had a zero-hours contract, according to documents seen by the Guardian, which appeared to breach the rules of his seasonal worker visa, and he did not work the hours he had hoped. This was later changed to a minimum weekly contract of 20 hours, with an hourly wage of £10.10, after the Guardian approached the farm for comment.
Banyu and his colleagues came to the farm through a complex chain of brokers and agencies.
When Banyu lost a good job in Bali at the start of the pandemic, he found himself digging tunnels for 12 hours a day on a salary of less than £45 a week. So once he heard about an organization offering to enroll in an English program in exchange for a job abroad, he jumped at the chance.
The lessons were basic, but he was told the £550 course was essential for being matched with a job, even if applicants were already fluent. “The purpose of training is that we should pay,” Banyu said. “This course is really only for business, it’s not for teaching.”
If you couldn’t afford the course, you could borrow money, which many did.
From there, the debts to the broker increased. At first they were told that their jobs could be in Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Banyu and his friends say that when they learned their jobs would be in Britain, they were flown to Jakarta to meet the authorized British agent who would register them and get their visas.
The six men in Banyu’s caravan say they still owed the broker money and know of others on the farm and across the UK with similar debts. After interest is added, documents seen by the Guardian show debts of between £4,400 and £5,000.
Although these debts include the cost of visas and flights – permitted by the seasonal worker visa – there are also thousands of pounds in fees for other services.
During the three months, Banyu was unemployed and enrolled in compulsory language courses as part of his wait to come to Britain. He also got into debt. He borrowed £1,600 from cousins to support his family and buy food, meaning his total debt looking for work in Britain is over £6,100.
While in Jakarta, the workers met Douglas Amesz, the managing director of AG Recruitment, the licensed UK agency tasked with recruiting them for the farm.
AG has teamed up with a Jakata recruitment agency, Al Zubara Manpower, to find hundreds of workers for British farms, including Clock House. It seems Al Zubara appealed to brokers on islands across the country to find volunteer farm workers as quickly as possible.
AG denies any wrongdoing and seems to have known nothing of the broker who had found the workers. Meeting in Jakarta, Amesz told Banyu and his friends not to pay any additional fees, and that it would be illegal, they said, but local brokers told them not to disclose what they had paid.
“I think Mr. Douglas doesn’t really know how Al Zubara connected with other agencies like our agency,” Banyu said.
Amesz said AG was cooperating “fully” with the Gangmasters and Labor Abuse Authority and was “extremely concerned to learn of the allegations that have been raised.” He said that Al Zubara did not do any recruitment and that AG did not ask them to outsource recruitment to other local organizations or brokers.
AG said the Indonesian Ministry of Labor conducted an investigation and confirmed that Al Zubara acted legally.
Now, in August, Banyu picks faster and works longer. The money he will be able to make from the job, once he pays his installments to the broker in Bali, will be around £440 a month, he says. By English standards that’s intolerably low, but still more than double what he could earn in Bali.
When asked if he had considered confronting the Indonesian agent about the exorbitant charges, he replied that he had no authority to do so and that he would like to work abroad for them. in the future. “I always thank God for finding a job here,” he said.