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Migrant fruit picker who ‘struggled to buy food after being underpaid by British farm’ sues employers

Sapana Pangeni came to the UK under the government’s visa scheme  (Sapana Pangeni,)
Sapana Pangeni came to the UK under the government’s visa scheme (Sapana Pangeni,)

A migrant fruit picker is suing a Britishfarm in a landmark employment tribunal over claims she was underpaid, worked six-day weeks and had to buy her own protective equipment.

Sapana Pangeni, 31, from Nepal, says she was owed nearly £1,500 from two months working at a farm in Berkshire. She came to the UK under the government’s visa scheme for the agriculture sector and is the first person on a seasonal worker visa to take legal action against a farm.

Ms Pangeni worked at EU Plants Ltd, one of the largest producers of raspberry and strawberry plants for soft fruit farms, between November 2022 and January 2023.

She claims she worked six days a week for up to eight and a half hours each day. Before the tribunal proceedings started she said that she and some of her colleagues ran out of money within a few weeks of arriving in the UK. She said A friend gave her £60 for groceries, which she then shared with other Nepali workers at the farm who were also too broke to buy food.

Ms Pangeni also previously said that she emailed her UK visa sponsor and recruiter in January to explain that she had been underpaid, and that the hours on the payslip did not reflect the hours she had worked. “It is getting harder to pay for groceries and living expenses,” she wrote at the time.

 (Sapana Pangeni)
(Sapana Pangeni)

She added: “Most of the other friends already left the current management here. So I am working here under frustration and very bad working conditions.”

Following her complaint, the recruiter transferred Ms Pangeni to another farm, but she said she was not compensated for the money she was owed.

Besides not being paid all her wages, she says she was not given a contract, had to provide her own personal protective equipment, and faced indirect discrimination, according to her legal filings.

Her lawyers are arguing that she suffered indirect discrimination as a result of the fact that she was on a six-month visa and so found it harder to uphold her rights compared to people with a more secure immigration status, either through a union or the legal system.

Ms Pangeni is among nearly 35,000 migrant workers who came to work in the UK on six-month seasonal worker visas last year. Human rights groups have consistently warned that the visa’s structure, and the lack of enforcement of employment and visa regulations, put people at risk of exploitation. But the government has steadily increased the number of visas issued since 2019. As many as 55,000 could be issued this year.

A recent investigation by theBureau of Investigative Journalism and The Independent found that the government failed to investigate welfare issues raised by hundreds of workers who came to the UK on the visa in 2021 and 2022.

“These claims are difficult to bring from abroad after the workers leave the country [and] farms are aware of these barriers that inhibit workers seeking compensation for mistreatment,” said Nusrat Uddin from Wilson LLP, who is representing Ms Pangeni alongside barrister Franck Magennis of Garden Court Chambers.

“As a lawyer who has worked with seasonal workers for almost two years, this is the first case where a claim in the employment tribunal has been possible.”

“Our client has shown incredible bravery in holding her former employer accountable, not only for herself but also to encourage others and improve future conditions.”

EU Plants Ltd “strongly deny” the claim bought by Ms Pangeni and intend to strongly defend the claim.

It admitted that it had failed to pay £192 in holiday pay, something it rectified in May, after Ms Pangeni had initiated proceedings.

In a statement, EU Plants Ltd said that it “provides an inclusive and supportive working environment for workers, and its founder started his career as a seasonal worker.”

It said it had not previously had an employment tribunal claim brought against it and that the issue of outstanding holiday pay “arose following Ms Pangeni having left without notice.”

The case opened with a preliminary hearing held and will proceed in May 2024 over four days.