Agricultural workers housing rights

Published September 2023

A potted history of the rise and fall of agricultural workers housing rights and what advisers should look out for today.

Aerial photograph of a farm from the 1980s

A changing landscape

Some workers receive accommodation as part of their job - often this is 'tied' to their employment. When their employment ends, they no longer have the right to stay.

This was true for agricultural workers with tied accommodation for many years. Campaigning brought the issue to a head in the 1970s. New laws came in. Workers who qualified for agricultural protection could stay in their property after their employment ended. Some of these workers still live in the properties today. It's vital these workers know their housing rights.

But the employment landscape has changed since the 70s. Now, workers might be more likely to be on short term contracts, seasonal work or visas and will not meet the conditions for agricultural tenancy protection.

Olde times

It was an insecure life in tied accommodation: if you lost your job, you lost your home. If a worker died, their family could be homeless.

Tied accommodation was common practice in nineteenth and twentieth century rural England. Many workers were dependent on paid agricultural work where their employers provided accommodation. Large country estates often had cottages for farm workers. Parishes had houses for clergy. Foresters might work and live in new forests.

Workers often lived in tied accommodation rent free. This was considered part of the worker's benefit. Tied accommodation meant low wages so workers often couldn't afford their own accommodation near their work. Rural workers were often isolated and trapped in small villages or hamlets with nothing around for miles.

The ultimate benefit of the arrangement was to the employer. They had a worker close by. Employers could use the threat of eviction to control a worker during employment - and when a worker retired or resigned they had to move.

1970s: winning the fight for worker protections

By the late 1970s, around 50% of farm workers lived in tied accommodation and legal protections were weak.

The National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers campaigned to abolish the traditional tied system: no farm worker should be evicted from a tied cottage without suitable alternative accommodation.

Workers attacked the tied system as demoralising and degrading. Eviction could break up a family. Employers defended the system: running a farm without tied cottages would not be possible. They needed workers nearby for efficiency.

A historian covering post-war agricultural workers said tied accommodation was "the single most contentious issue in agricultural labour relations for seventy-five years."

Abolition of Tied Cottages Bill 1974

The Abolition of Tied Cottages Bill was presented to the House of Commons in 1974. It aimed to protect workers so they "no longer need to fear ill-health, injury or old age."

It did not become law, but within two years the introduction of the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976 strengthened agricultural worker rights.

The Bill included a story from the Kent Messenger

A worker bought with a farm was evicted in the snow: a victim of the tied cottage system. The worker tried to buy a property with his redundancy payments but couldn't afford a mortgage. He was offered another job but couldn't take it - no accommodation was provided.

My advice to young people is to keep well clear of tied cottages. You are owned by the farmer, and once you're in, you're in for life.

I had no choice over whom I worked for: I was bought.

We have been trapped by the system.

Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976

This new law gave agricultural workers in tied accommodation long term security. Qualifying workers would be protected occupiers. To qualify as a protected occupier, an employee needs to have worked full time in agriculture for at least two years and rent accommodation from their employer.

Protected occupiers could keep their tenancy even after their job ended and pay a fair rent.

They could have somewhere to live while they were working. Somewhere to bring up a family. Somewhere to live during retirement. Even somewhere to pass onto their children.

Agricultural tied accommodation became a home for life, not just for employment.

1989: rights pruned back

Housing law changed again with the Housing Act 1988.

This Act didn't change the status of existing protected occupiers but brought in different tenancies for new workers moving into agricultural accommodation after 15 January 1989. There were some protections for people already in agriculture who signed a new agreement with the same landlord.

The rights of new agricultural occupiers mirrored the new assured and assured shorthold tenancies created for the private sector.

Assured tenancies

Many new agricultural tenants from 1989 will have an assured tenancy by default.

These are lifetime tenancies, so similar to Rent (Agriculture) Act protection from the 1970s, but with some pared back rights. Tenants can stay in their property after they stop working, but their landlord has more grounds for eviction.

Landlords can charge a market rent from the start of occupancy - higher than a fair rent.

Workers still had to meet the qualifying conditions, including having worked in agriculture for at least two years.

Assured shorthold tenancies

Some agricultural occupiers from 1989 will have an assured shorthold tenancy. The landlord must have given the worker notice of this before the tenancy started. A landlord cannot change an existing assured tenancy into an assured shorthold.

An assured shorthold tenancy makes the worker more vulnerable to eviction. They can still stay in their property after their employment ends, but their employer can give the worker two months' notice without having to give a reason.

Today: ploughing forward

Tenancy types for agricultural workers have not changed since 1989.

But farming has experienced a huge change. A rapid increase of mechanisation. Large scale industry for the production of eggs, poultry, dairy, beef. Vanishing small farms.

This has changed things for workers. It's not always a job for life anymore. Seasonal, short term contracts - around 39,000 casual workers each year.

The type of work has changed too. It's expected there'll be 540,600 jobs in the sector by 2025: farmers, machinery drivers, conservation specialists, soil scientists, botanists, the list goes on. Some of these jobs will qualify for protection, some won't.

Jobs might not come with housing. Rather than accommodation some large farming businesses provide staff with transport from local urban areas. A Bernard Matthews job advert lists an employee perk as free transport to work from Norwich or Great Yarmouth.

Echoes of the past: migrant workers

Each year, workers come from countries including Ukraine and Nepal to work in the UK on a six month agricultural visa, for poultry work or horticultural work growing fruits and vegetables.

The BBC and others have recently reported on conditions affecting some workers staying in shared caravans on farms provided as part of their job. Workers pay rent and other living costs. Some fruit pickers told a House of Lords committee they live in extremely bad conditions.

Workers report insecurity. If they complain they fear not only losing their job and home, but possible deportation. Their six month visa means they don't automatically benefit from agricultural tenancy protection which only starts after two years.

These situations echo the early days of tied accommodation: the poor conditions and instability that people in the 70s fought against.

Cultivate your knowledge

The changes in law over the past 50 years mean that agricultural workers can have strong housing rights.

Shelter Legal has new content you can use, covering:

  • who is an agricultural occupier

  • what rights agricultural occupiers have

  • protection from eviction for agricultural occupiers

Find out more about agricultural occupiers.

About the author

Charlie Howard is a legal editor at Shelter. Before that, Charlie was a housing adviser and a team leader at the Bristol Shelter Hub.