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Migrant fruit pickers charged thousands in illegal fees to work on UK farms, investigation shows | Nepal

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Ditya*, a single mother from Nepal, is used to travelling abroad for work. For years she has made a living as a migrant farm worker, where she can earn several times what she would in her home country. Last year she applied to become part of the UK government’s seasonal worker visa scheme, picking fruit and vegetables on a farm in Herefordshire that supplies fresh produce to Marks & Spencer (M&S), Tesco and Waitrose.

Ditya got the job, but it came at a huge cost. In order to secure it, she says she had to pay more than £3,000 – almost a third of what she earned during the six-month post – to recruitment agents.

Some of that money covered the cost of her flight and visa application. The rest appears to include illegal fees that labour rights experts describe as “exploitative and extortionate”.

A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Guardian can reveal that as many as 150 Nepali workers who came to work at Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire as part of the government scheme may have paid similar amounts, many of them claiming they paid agents working for a UK-licensed recruitment company.

The findings suggest that the underfunding of labour-rights enforcement, combined with the rapid expansion of the seasonal worker scheme – which aims to plug shortages created by Brexit and Covid-19 – could be putting thousands of migrant labourers at risk of exploitation.

Tesco and M&S, which buy from Cobrey, have human rights policies requiring their suppliers to ensure workers are not charged fees.

Tesco and M&S said they are urgently investigating the matter. Tesco added that any illegal fees had to be repaid in full. The workers, however, say they have not yet been reimbursed.

A Waitrose spokesperson said it couldn’t comment on the specific case, which was a live investigation, but it would “take whatever action” was needed.

The UK government launched the seasonal workers pilot scheme in 2019 to address concerns that the withdrawal from the EU would cause a shortage of labour for harvesting jobs on farms. Its rules state that workers should only pay a visa application fee of £259 (£244 until April this year) and travel costs. Any additional recruitment fees are illegal under UK law and can result in a labour provider being stripped of its licence.

Workers speaking on condition of anonymity said that they paid the fees to agents working for the Nepali company My Careers HR Solutions, which Poseidon Human Capital, a recruitment firm headquartered in London, says it controls day-to-day. Poseidon had in turn been hired by the Brighton-based charity Concordia, one of four organisations that operate the UK government scheme. Concordia had been contracted to find workers to pick fruit and vegetables at Cobrey Farms.

Simon Bowyer, CEO of Concordia, said that his company conducted an investigation and interviewed more than half of the 150 people recruited to work at the farm by Poseidon. He said a “significant percentage” told them they had paid fees to My Careers HR Solutions, its chairman John Khadka, Poseidon or “other named associates”, and that most payments were between RS300,000 (£1,935) and RS750,000 (£4,840).

Poseidon director Matthew Hurley said the company hired its own investigators, from a “reputable law firm”, who found that no officers from his company had been complicit in illegal fees being taken.

The costs for a Nepali worker to participate in the scheme, including charges for preparing documents, visa costs and logistics, are estimated to be more than £2,000, Hurley said. If farms covered these costs, potential “exposure to payment of illicit fees would be eradicated”, he said.

Khadka, who was the chairman of Kathmandu-based My Careers HR Solutions at the time of the alleged breaches, said the investigation found two deposits made by workers to his accounts. He said that both were from longtime friends who he was helping to transfer money.

In March, Khadka denied that his company had recruited Nepali workers to the UK or that he had any dealings with Poseidon. He subsequently said that he was suspended from the My Careers HR Solutions board as a result of Poseidon’s investigation, but added that it found the allegations made against him to be “incorrect”.

Concordia has now terminated its relationship with Poseidon and alerted the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the government body in charge of licensing labour providers and tackling exploitation in the agriculture sector. A spokesperson for the GLAA said it does not “provide a running commentary on specific investigations”.

The charging of recruitment fees via third parties has resulted in thousands of Nepali workers – primarily working in the Gulf and Malaysia – taking out informal loans they struggle to pay back, said Bishal Tamang, an independent migration researcher and former migrant worker. In the worst cases, he said, this has resulted in workers taking their own lives.

A seasonal worker picks strawberries
The seasonal worker scheme is expecting to issue as many as 40,000 visas this year. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

“They will borrow money from lenders that charge huge interest rates and give their land deeds as a guarantee. It is normally land that has been in the family for generations,” he said.

Tamang said he had previously paid RS100,000 (£645) to secure work in Saudi Arabia, but that workers can be charged more than 10 times as much for work in the UK.

According to figures obtained through freedom of information requests, the most common allegations in the agriculture sector brought to the GLAA last year were in relation to recruitment fees. A total of 25 such allegations were made in 2021, more than three times the number made in 2018, the year before the scheme’s launch.

“We need food on the shelves in supermarkets, and [migrant workers] have come to make that happen,” said Emily Kenway, a researcher and former adviser to the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner. “We’ve got to hold up our side of the bargain, which does not include workers being fleeced in order to get here.”

Kenway said the GLAA has been more likely to pick up on these issues because it had working relationships with labour enforcement agencies in countries such as Romania, where most migrant workers came from before Brexit. But the GLAA’s resources have not kept pace with the increase in the number of countries from which workers are now being recruited – 58 in 2021.

“We knew something like this was going to happen,” Kenway said. “Everyone who works on labour rights, modern slavery and trafficking has been saying from day one that there is a massive chance that we’re going to have exploitation taking place through the scheme because of its design and the lack of resourcing going into it.”

The seasonal worker scheme, which issued just under 2,500 visas in 2019, is expecting to issue as many as 40,000 this year. Meanwhile, the Home Office’s funding for the GLAA last year was £7m – less than what it spent on publications, stationery and printing.

Data released by the Home Office this week shows that Nepal has provided 395 seasonal workers to the UK in the first three months of this year – the fourth-highest country on the list.

Carolin Ott, a solicitor at Leigh Day, said the new findings were extremely concerning. “It is absolutely vital that this rapidly expanding scheme has necessary safeguards in place to prevent exploitation and ensure protection of seasonal workers’ rights,” she said.

Several workers who went to work at Cobrey Farms in 2021 said the recruitment fees represented a significant proportion of their earnings. One Nepali migrant who harvested asparagus and blueberries said he had paid about £3,100 to a recruiter. He said the farm’s HR team learned in the summer of the “exorbitant fees” some workers said had been charged by My Careers HR Solutions.

Ditya said she paid £4,420, including a £1,260 deposit that was returned to her when she went back to Nepal. When Concordia asked about recruitment fees during its investigation, she lied, saying she had only paid for her visa and flight, because she “didn’t want to get in trouble”.

Chris Chinn, whose family runs Cobrey, said that the farm notifies and cooperates with the GLAA in the event of any alleged or observed breach of labour standards. He said Cobrey’s licence means it has been “assessed as meeting the rigorous standards set by the GLAA”.

Concordia’s Simon Bowyer said that his company would not be refunding the workers, but would like to see My Careers HR Solutions do so. “I don’t know the exact nature of the relationship between My Careers and Poseidon,” he said, but we were not happy when we found that relationship – whatever it was – existed.”

TBIJ and the Guardian have also seen training certificates issued to Cobrey workers that feature the logos of the British Council and Ofqual, both of which said that they have not accredited any of the people or companies named in the documents. Hurley put this down to a “certification mistake” that was being addressed.

*Name has been changed

Additional reporting by Pramod Acharya

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Ukraine war: The luck of the Ukrainian oligarchs is beginning to change | Economy and Business

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In the room of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, in his residence on the outskirts of Kyiv, there is no trace of the Picassos or the Aivazovskys that used to hang on its walls. What does remain are the gigantic empty dressing rooms where the president’s girlfriend once had a space with capacity for a thousand rings. There were also many, many television sets. In the ample residence where the couple lived more than comfortably, there were up to 18 Samsung sets, sometimes several in the same room. Books, on the other hand, were practically non-existent.

However, the most valuable objects – works of art, furniture, jewelry – are no longer here. The former president took them in his hasty flight to Russia during the 2014 Maidan uprising that would change the country’s history. Anyone who is curious can see on YouTube how Yanukovych’s assistants loaded trucks for three days in order to get the spoils from so many years of looting out of the country. After his departure, shocked citizens entered the mansion to discover the shameless ostentation in which their leader had lived.

The mansion where Yanukovych spent his days of relaxation is much more than a house. Not only because the 150 hectares of the Mezhyhirya estate housed a zoo (with the friendly ostriches that are still there today, undaunted by the distress that Ukraine is experiencing), a museum with the luxury cars that the former president collected, a heliport, a tennis court, two huge golf courses, a spa with several saunas and 40 pieces of sports equipment, a shooting range, endless fountains and lakes, and even an artificial mountain complete with a waterfall. All this, just for the man who ruled Ukraine and his girlfriend. If his children visited, they slept in another house. Russian President Vladimir Putin also had another residence in the complex, in case he ever went to Kyiv. And at banquets with many diners, a dining boat received the guests. “During construction, it was estimated that each day of work cost $2 million. It would be impossible to calculate the value of all this,” certifies the guide Genadii Nikolaenko.

Protesters marched in Kyiv on March 14 outside one of the offices of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
Protesters marched in Kyiv on March 14 outside one of the offices of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.Vitaliy Holovin – Corbis (Corbis via Getty Images)

Since his flight to Russia, Yanukovych has been an outcast in Ukraine. But Rinat Akhmetov, the oligarch who sponsored his political career, catapulting him to the top, is still the first fortune of his country, with a wealth that Forbes estimated last year at about $7.6 billion. Akhmetov is the most prominent name in the list of Ukrainian oligarchs who control the country through a network of companies and connections. However, luck seems to be changing for this select group.

A dangerous mix

Several factors threaten the position of the men who, until now, have defined the map of power, and who also managed to create political parties that obeyed their personal interests. On the one hand, the war launched by Russia is striking some vital nerves in their finances. On the other, the simultaneous political pressure from Kyiv and Brussels threatens to hurt them even more; a dangerous mix for those who filled their pockets with the privatizations of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“To understand the role of the oligarchs, it is enough to think of medieval Europe, with kings who competed for power with feudal lords,” explains Volodimir Yermolenko, director of the Ukraine World website, from a placid terrace in Kyiv. This journalist admits that the excessive power of this small number of people is a burden for the country, but he also believes that, to a certain extent, the competition between the powerful entails a kind of balance game that prevents the authoritarian drift of the country that a single leader would imply, as is the case in Russia, where all the oligarchs are subject to the will of the Kremlin.

Akhmetov is the owner, among many other things, of Azovstal, the steel mill that gained worldwide notoriety for becoming the last point of resistance against the Russians in Mariupol, in southern Ukraine. This gigantic complex, one of the sources of Akhmetov’s fortune, generated tens of thousands of jobs, produced 40% of the country’s steel and had its own port at the Sea of Azov.

The former residence of Yanukovich outside Kyiv, during a visit on June 21.
The former residence of Yanukovich outside Kyiv, during a visit on June 21.Luis Doncel

In May, the tycoon who used to boast privileged ties to Moscow – and who sponsored Yanukovych – announced a $17-20 billion dollar lawsuit against Russia for the destruction of the plant and other assets in the Donbas area. Some analysts estimate that Akhmetov has lost two-thirds of his fortune since the beginning of the war. But for many businessmen the problems are not new; they began in 2014, with the seizure of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas. “The key to seeing if they will recover their former power will be in how the reconstruction tasks are executed and who is entrusted with them,” says a European source. Another oligarch who’s fallen from grace is Viktor Medvedchuk, the Ukrainian billionaire closest to Putin; he was arrested in April accused of “high treason” by the Kyiv authorities.

Zelenskiy’s crusade

The oligarchs are not only haunted by financial problems. Perhaps more dangerous for their interests is the political crusade against them. In November 2021, before the Russian troops entered with force and fire, President Volodimir Zelenskiy had already promoted a law to reduce the weight of the tycoons, a group that included some 40 people with an industry monopoly, media outlets, a fortune of more than $90 million, and who take part in political activities. Some critical voices pointed out that, with this initiative, Zelenskiy was not seeking to balance the map of power, but rather to undermine the influence of former President Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskiy himself also has a group of oligarchs around him.

In addition to leading the opposition, Poroshenko is one of the richest men in the country thanks to an empire of candy, cars, media outlets and much more. The tycoon faces up to 15 years in prison for high treason, for the purchase of coal from the pro-Russian separatists of Donetsk, as well as other charges of corruption, trials that he sees as politically motivated.

In an interview with EL PAÍS, last week Poroshenko made the case for demanding responsibility from those “who ruin the country by stealing billions of euros.” Reminded that he too is an oligarch, he angrily protested. “Please don’t use that word!” he exclaimed. “We are in a war right now. And who has stayed here to defend their country, and who has fled? Who is spending their money to support the army and who is stealing? Who pays their taxes and who doesn’t?” His spokesmen assure that he has invested more than €10 million out of his own pocket to help defend Ukraine.

The pressure also comes from Brussels, who wants to get its hands on the Ukrainian super-millionaires. When approving the country’s candidacy to join the EU, the European Commission demanded seven chapters of reforms, one of them to advance the anti-oligarch law. But this must be done, according to Brussels, avoiding arbitrariness. The document also recalled the “disproportionate” influence of these businessmen on the media, especially on television.

Before the war, the gardens that witnessed Yanukovych’s excesses were full of families having picnics. This place, which the guide considers “the heart of Ukraine” due to a story that goes back to the 12th century when a monastery was founded there, is now a public museum and it also served as a refuge when Russian troops approached Kyiv. But it also symbolizes the rise and fall of the man who wanted to control the entire country. Yanukovych, in the words of the journalist Yermolenko, tried to be king and feudal lord at the same time. The question is whether the oligarchs who accompanied him in his career will know how to adapt to a new era of an increasingly European Ukraine, or if they will fall by the wayside.

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Bolivia’s corrupt system failed to stem femicide. Now, feminists are fighting back | Women’s rights and gender equality

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In parts of La Paz, every surface is papered with layers of bleached and peeling posters: adverts for events, jobs, apartments – and missing women.

In 2021, there were at least 108 femicides in Bolivia, among the highest rates in South America. Many of the perpetrators are either never caught, not punished or go free soon after.

In January, fresh outrage was prompted by the case of Richard Choque, a serial rapist and murderer who was given house arrest and then continued to commit crimes. The wave of fury prompted by the scandal has since driven Bolivia’s feminist collectives to spectacular measures in an effort to force government action against femicides – and the corrupt justice system that allows them.

It started with perhaps the biggest feminist protest seen in El Alto, the one-time satellite city that now flows into La Paz. The march began outside Choque’s house in El Alto and culminated at the courts of justice, where activists covered the walls with graffiti, red paint and the names of unpunished rapists and murderers.

“We wanted to redirect the discourse,” said María Galindo, founder of Mujeres Creando, a feminist collective in La Paz. “For it not to be a discourse of victimhood, nor a tabloid nor a police discourse. Because what Richard Choque shows is that the central problem is state corruption. This man was a prisoner, and yet he went free.”

Large board with posters of missing women plastered all over.
At the bus terminal in La Paz, there is a large wall with posters of missing women, adolescents and children, many of whom are never found alive. Photograph: Sara Aliaga Ticona/The Guardian

Galindo has since proved the sharp point of the pressure campaign on the government.

She took to barging into state institutions and putting civil servants on the spot, livestreamed on social media. The one-liners she whipped them with went viral on TikTok. Then she teased a run to be Bolivia’s ombudsman – before tearing her application up in front of the cameras, in a typically flamboyant outfit of fishnet leggings, black eyeshadow and irreverent takes on patriotic symbols, not least a giant crown capped with an Andean condor.

Meanwhile, Mujeres Creando catalogued ignored reports of gender violence and investigated San Pedro prison, where Choque ought to have been held. They found a system of corruption, where inmates bought privileges including house arrest.

In response, the government set up a commission to re-evaluate cases like Choque’s, which, though extreme, was not unique. Twenty-one others released to house arrest inappropriately have since been reincarcerated, while another 50 arrest warrants have been issued. Eighteen judges are facing criminal proceedings and more than 300 of their cases are being re-evaluated.

Parents of the teenage girls murdered and buried in the home of accused femicide suspect Richard Choque.
Parents of the teenage girls murdered and buried in the home of Richard Choque. Photograph: Sara Aliaga Ticona/The Guardian

Such numbers come as no surprise to activists in La Paz and El Alto where gender violence has been accentuated by two factors, said writer Quya Reyn. First, the absence of the state, which creates insecurity. And second, the fact that the city draws migrants – many of them young women – from across Bolivia’s western highlands.

These women are vulnerable to abuse. “If you go to [the centre], you’ll find posters looking for nannies, looking for women to work in restaurants,” said Reyna. “And they are always looking for women – only women.”

“You see this with Richard Choque,” Reyna added. “He would go on Facebook and say that he could offer work. These young women were murdered looking for work.”

In 2013, the government introduced Law 348, which, among other things, made femicide a crime punishable by 30 years in prison – Bolivia’s maximum sentence.

The law was welcomed as progressive legislation at the time, and Adriana Guzmán, a feminist activist based in El Alto, believes the text remains generally sound – the problem is implementation.

First, there is a lack of resources. “Right now, there aren’t enough judges, there aren’t enough prosecutors, there aren’t enough investigators.”

Then there’s corruption, as demonstrated by the case of Choque. “The entire justice system is corrupt – not just with regard to crimes against women.” Guzmán notes that this discriminates most against the poor.

There is some scepticism that the government’s commission will address these root problems.

Adriana Guzmán, a feminist activist based in El Alto.
Adriana Guzmán, a feminist activist based in El Alto. Photograph: Sara Aliaga Ticona/The Guardian

Galindo, for one, views the commission as an attempt to deflate their pressure campaign. “It’s for the media. It’s a commission that serves to make declarations, not effective policies.”

Meanwhile Guzmán says that it was limited from the start, since it is only reviewing a fraction of gender violence cases. “For it to really be a historic commission, and not a ridiculous one – because it is ridiculous that the state has created a commission to return those to prison who should already be there – the commission needs to finish with a proposal to reform justice and the state.”

Among Bolivia’s feminists there are varying views on how that sort of reform will be achieved.

“The system has to be changed with huge social pressure,” said Galindo. “And we’re building a movement to achieve that.” She believes the campaign Mujeres Creando has led over the last months has strengthened their social legitimacy: “No one can buy us. We are incorruptible.”

But Guzmán is sceptical that this movement reaches much beyond the urban middle classes. And the true forces in Bolivia, says Guzmán, are the campesino and Indigenous organisations. “Within them, feminism isn’t a thing. There are lots of prejudices against feminism.”

In El Alto, meanwhile, Reyna pointed to the lack of feminists in politics pushing for reform. She believes change will come when a new, diverse generation of women enter government and shape it from within.

“I don’t want to fight the state,” said Reyna. “I want to be the state.”

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Forty-six migrants found dead inside abandoned trailer in San Antonio, Texas | USA

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The bodies of at least 46 migrants were found on Monday inside an abandoned tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, around 155 miles (250 km) from the border with Mexico. The finding has been confirmed by local authorities.

The vehicle was found next to the railroad tracks in the southwestern part of the city, according to local media reports. Emergency services rescued at least 16 other people who were still alive inside the trailer, including four children, and sent them to hospital for treatment.

This is not the first time that San Antonio experiences such a tragedy, although it is the deadliest in memory. Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a local Walmart, and in 2003, 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of the city.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that a Mexican official was on his way to the site. “We still don’t know their nationalities,” specified a spokesperson for Mexican Foreign Affairs. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is scheduled to meet with Joe Biden at the White House in July, and migration will feature prominently on the agenda. The recently concluded Americas Summit also sought to address growing migration flows to the US, largely from Mexico and Central America.

Monday’s was the latest human tragedy involving busy irregular immigration routes. May broke records for illegal crossings into the US with more than 239,000. The largest access point is through the border shared by Mexico and the State of Texas. This intense migratory flow has created a problem for Joe Biden and the Democrats, who will go to the polls in November in midterm elections with immigration policy as one of the issues of most concern for voters.

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