When Raj heard British farmers were hiring seasonal workers from Nepal last year, he jumped at the chance to earn what he thought would be a sizeable income for his family.
Having already worked in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, the father-of-two figured he could make enough in six months of farm work in Britain so as not to have to get a job abroad again.
After all, he had read on social media he could earn as much as 3,000 pounds, or $3,870, a month.
“There are not enough jobs back home in Nepal so this job was the biggest opportunity for me to take care of my family,” said Raj, who used a pseudonym as he had overstayed his UK visa.
The 36-year-old told Context he took out a loan of 260,000 Nepali rupees ($1,973) for his visa and flights, thinking he would easily pay it off.
Yet within four months, Raj and his colleagues were told there was no more work on the apple farm where they worked. The agency that recruited them said they should return home immediately as there were no other jobs available, but promised them priority for work this year.
But British farms stopped hiring Nepali and Indonesian workers in January after reports that many had paid excessive recruitment fees that left them in debt bondage, and many had not returned home when their visas expired.
Some of those already in Britain, however, found themselves still saddled with debt. Since they would no longer be able to come back to Britain as seasonal workers again, more overstayed their visas and found informal jobs to try to make the money they needed, charities and immigration experts said.
Anti-slavery charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, or FLEX, said migrant workers were often duped into paying illegal recruitment fees to local brokers in their home country.
“If you come to the country with this level of debt ... then you can’t simply return to your home country. It’s reasonable to expect that people in that situation will have to find work elsewhere,” said FLEX Chief Executive Lucila Granada.
Bahadur, 40, who also used a pseudonym, said he borrowed 800,000 Nepali rupees from relatives to pay a local recruiter.
The father of one, who worked as a mountaineering guide before Covid-19 decimated tourism, said an agent told him he could save 400,000 Nepali rupees a month on a British farm.
Instead, Bahadur spent all his wages clearing his debt and had nothing to show for six gruelling months at a fruit farm.
“If I didn’t pay that big amount to an agent, I’d be able go back to my country after my work contract finished and come back here next season,” he said.
“But I had to send all the money back to pay off the loan. Now I need to work to save money and support my family.”
While many Nepali and Indonesian workers returned home, others like Raj and Bahadur are working illegally, desperate to pay off loans and earn enough to make their trip worthwhile, according to the Southeast and East Asian Centre, or SEEAC, a community support group.
Nova-Fransisca Silitonga, a SEEAC project manager, said one Indonesian worker had put his family house up as collateral for a bank loan, while others had borrowed from neighbours.
“If you’re unable to pay that back, you will feel shame in your village and loan sharks might go to your family,” she said.
Bahadur said he applied for asylum when his seasonal worker visa expired and can legally remain in the country while the Home Office assesses his claim. But he is not hopeful his application will be approved.
“I am worried I cannot stay here for long. Either I will go to Portugal or stay here illegally after the Home Office decision,” he said.
Both Bahadur and Raj said some Nepali workers had used smugglers to go to European countries like Portugal, believing it was easier to get visas and jobs there.
Raj said it was unfair that workers had to go to such lengths to pay off debts.
“No one should have to take a loan and remain trapped in debt for a foreign job,” he said.
Ukrainians used to be the largest group of seasonal agricultural workers in Britain, but when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the numbers coming fell sharply, according to official figures.
A handful of licensed recruiters – known as scheme operators – turned to Asia to plug the labour shortage.
Britain granted more than 35,000 seasonal worker visas in the 12 months up to March 2023, a rise of 10% on the previous year, official data said.
But without regulation of overseas recruitment, charities fear more migrant workers could become exposed to debt bondage.
“There’s very little transparency around what’s really happening. The government adopts a very hands-off approach to regulating it,” said Marilyn Croser, a researcher at labour rights group, FairSquare.
After contracts with Nepali and Indonesian workers were dropped this year, British scheme operators started recruiting from other Asian countries, such as Bangladesh.
“Rather than solving the problem on a systemic level, it’s just going to go from one country to another,” said Johanna White from legal charity, the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit.
The Home Office said the seasonal worker scheme was an “integral part of the UK’s rural economy” and lets overseas workers re-apply every season, provided they leave when their visas expire.
In separate email comments, the Home Office and the National Farmers’ Union, which represents more than 46,000 British farms, declined to comment on illegal recruitment fees, but both said they took workers’ welfare seriously.
Some operators say they are trying to improve the recruitment process. Newly licensed Regency Recruitment, which has hired Bangladeshi workers, said it was working with an anti-slavery charity to reduce risks at the recruitment stage.
Managing director Naseem Talukdar said his team conducted in-depth interviews and reference checks, refused resumes from third parties and started by only hiring around 50 workers.
“It’s just a shame that some people really abused the system and took advantage of people,” said Talukdar. “But that should not stop a company like us to start changing things. We want to make this sustainable.”
Nepali worker Raj said he hoped to make enough money doing odd jobs to provide for his family.
“I don’t have huge plans of staying in the UK forever or getting a passport or being a citizen. All I want is to earn some more money for my family back home.”