Sitting in a caravan in the hot Kent countryside, Banyu’s face is etched with worry. It is July and he is less than a month into a job picking fruit at Clock House farm near Maidstone, which supplies strawberries, raspberries and other soft fruit to leading supermarket chains.
He says he arrived from Indonesia this summer £5,000 in debt to an unlicensed broker in Bali, handing over the deeds to his family home as surety. He only has a six-month visa for the picking season and is scared that the work is not as lucrative as he hoped.
“Now I’m working hard only to pay back that money,” said Banyu (not his real name) on a video call from the caravan he shares with five other men. “Sometimes I get stressed. I cannot sleep sometimes. I have a family who need my support to eat. And meanwhile, I think about the debt.”
Clock House, which featured in a Marks & Spencer advert last autumn and operates under the slogan “Growing a better tomorrow”, employs about 1,200 people a season to pick raspberries, strawberries, plums, blackberries and apples.
Brexit had already made finding pickers tough, a situation exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last year the majority of Clock House’s workers came from Ukraine, and the farm had been expecting about 880 to return.
After war broke out and men were told not to leave Ukraine, Clock House went to a licensed British agency to find workers from Indonesia and Vietnam.
The farm’s recruitment manager, Jane Packham, told BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today that when it tried to source British workers, 7,000 people got in touch, but only 100 actually started the work and “about one” stuck it out.
Packham said this was “probably unsurprising”. “It’s a different sort of job, we’re not used to it – I couldn’t do it … You’ve got to have the eye for it, you’ve got to have the speed for it and you’ve got to be relentless.”
In his first month, Banyu struggled to pick fast enough. He was on a zero-hours contract, according to documents seen by the Guardian, which appeared to be contrary to the rules of his seasonal worker visa, and he did not work the hours he hoped. This was later changed to a 20-hour minimum weekly contract, on hourly pay of £10.10, after the Guardian approached the farm for comment.
Banyu and his colleagues’ arrival at the farm came about via a complex chain of brokers and agencies.
When Banyu lost a good job in Bali at the start of the pandemic, he was left digging tunnels for 12 hours a day on a wage of less than £45 a week. So once he heard about an organisation offering enrolment on an English language programme in exchange for a job abroad, he jumped at the chance.
The lessons were basic, but he was told the £550 course was essential to be matched with a job, even if candidates were already fluent. “The purpose of the training is we should pay,” Banyu said. “This class is really only for business, it’s not for teaching.”
If you couldn’t pay for the course, you could borrow the money, which many did.
From there, the debts to the broker grew. At first they were told their jobs might be in Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Banyu and his friends say when they learned their jobs would be in Britain, they were flown to Jakarta to meet the licensed UK agent who would sign them up and get their visa.
The Bali broker put them up for three nights in a basic guest house. One worker said they were billed about £1,000 for their time in Jakarta.
All six of the men in Banyu’s caravan say they still owed money to the broker and they know others on this farm and across the UK with similar debts. Once interest is added, documents seen by the Guardian show debts of between £4,400 and £5,000.
While these debts include the cost of visas and flights – allowed under the seasonal worker visa – there are also thousands of pounds in fees for other services.
In the three months Banyu was unemployed and enrolled on compulsory language lessons as part of his wait to come to Britain, he also got into further debt. He borrowed £1,600 from cousins to support his family and buy himself food, meaning his total debt from seeking work in Britain exceeds £6,100.
While in Jakarta the workers met Douglas Amesz, the managing director of AG Recruitment, the licensed British agency commissioned to enlist them for the farm.
AG teamed up with a Jakata recruitment agency, Al Zubara Manpower, to find hundreds of workers for British farms, including Clock House. It appears Al Zubara used brokers on islands across the country to find willing farm workers as quickly as possible.
AG denies any wrongdoing and appears to have known nothing about the broker who had found the workers. Meeting in Jakarta, Amesz told Banyu and his friends not to pay any extra fees, and that this would be illegal, they said, but local brokers told them to not to disclose what they had paid.
“I think Mr Douglas doesn’t really know about how Al Zubara made a connection to other agencies like our agency,” Banyu said.
Amesz said AG was “fully cooperating” with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and that he was “extremely concerned to learn of the allegations that have been raised”. He said Al Zubara did not handle any recruitment and that AG did not ask them to subcontract recruitment to other local organisations or brokers.
AG said the Indonesian ministry of labour had conducted an investigation and confirmed that Al Zubara acted legally.
Now, in August, Banyu is picking faster and working longer hours. The money he will be able to make from the work, once he has paid his instalments to the broker in Bali, will be about £440 a month, he says. By English standards it is intolerably low, but it is still more than twice what he could make in Bali.
When asked if he had considered confronting the Indonesian agent about the exorbitant charges, he said he had no power to do so and would like to work abroad for them in the future. “I still thank God I got a job here,” he said.