Under Paid Nepali farm worker sues employer for discrimination in U K

London: Sapana Pangeni,  a Nepali seasonal worker has sued her employer, a British Farm,  alleging that it has underpaid her, and provided cold and unsuitable accommodation in a caravan that she had to share with five men.

This is the first tribunal claim in England suing the employer on the ground of discrimination that could well be a precedent –setting case and may establish that employers who underpay migrant workers could face additional discrimination claims, and higher penalties.

Pangeni, 31, has given evidence that British farm EU Plants Limited underpaid her and provided cold and unsuitable accommodation in a caravan shared with five men. For the first time, it is also being argued at the Employment Tribunal that Sapana and other migrant workers like her are discriminated against, as they face additional barriers when attempting to enforce their employment rights.

Pangeni was employed by the EU Plants Limited for picking and packing strawberry and raspberry plants at a farm near Reading, from November 2022 to January 2023. But she left just after two months, claiming she was systematically underpaid and denied appropriate living conditions.

The case Pangeni vs EU Plants Limited, is currently being heard at the Employment Tribunal in Southampton, where Pangeni is suing her former employer for unpaid wages and indirect discrimination. She also claims that she could not understand the English employment contract she was told to sign, and was not given a copy or a contract in her own language.

Pangeni told the tribunal that she was allocated a caravan to stay with five men, which made her feel uncomfortable, but her employer refused to consider alternatives. There was no heater given in the cold,  and that they had pick fruits with bare hands.

She complained that the U K was no different from the Gulf countries, and that the money paid to her was less than what she was promised.

Pangeni arrived in the UK from Nepal on the Seasonal Worker visa scheme, a six-month visa scheme introduced during the post-Brexit to enable farmers to hire workers from around the world by scheme operators appointed by the Home Office and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and placed in UK farm employing them.

With their visa tied to their employment, farms and scheme operators effectively control migrant workers’ right to be in the UK. Farms can terminate the employment at any point. While workers have a right to request to be transferred to another farm, the actual transfer is at the discretion of scheme operators.

Experts warn that such migrants carry a real risk of exploitation, and invite more hardships if they raise a complaint. Leaving  abusive workplaces, report exploitation, and  access the employment justice system is not easy.

Dr. Sarmila Bose, Head of Employment at the Work Rights Centre, a charity which represents Sapana and advocates for workers’ rights, said:  “Visa schemes based on sponsorship put employers in a position of incredible power. They know that it is very difficult for migrant workers to assert their rights, so they take advantage, expecting that the workers would be afraid to risk losing their visa status and income, are unlikely to have access to information or support, and would find it very difficult to challenge them once they leave the UK.”

Pangeni says that there are many who have suffered like her and ‘I want them to know that they can challenge employers who underpay or mistreat them.’

Franck Magennis, of Garden Court Chambers, representing Ms Pangeni, said: “EU Plants Limited hired migrant workers including Miss Pangeni fully aware that they were in a vulnerable position. They then took advantage of this by underpaying their wages and not paying holiday pay.

“I commend Ms Pangeni for her bravery in standing up to EU Plants Limited, and the Work Rights Centre for supporting her. The mainstream trade union movement must do more to include migrant workers in their struggle, so that more precarious workers can challenge the policies and systems that oppress all workers.”

In 2023, the Home Office issued 32,700 seasonal worker visas. A worker welfare survey by DEFRA found that more than two in every five seasonal workers who raised a complaint with management did not hear back, and just as many were unable to change farms when they requested a transfer. Despite widespread reports of exploitation, the government agreed to extend the visa scheme for another five years.

Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, CEO of Work Rights Centre said,’ this is a landmark case proving that seasonal workers can – and will – hold unscrupulous employers to account and fight for what is theirs.

The case was heard by the tribunal inconclusively on May 23 and will be heard further from June four to six.