(Bloomberg) -- A Nepalese farm worker who came to the UK to pick berries is suing her ex-employer for unpaid wages and discrimination in what campaigners say is the first case of its kind. 

Sapana Pangeni, 31, said in a witness statement Wednesday that her hands bled because she was not given gloves and was forced to live in an unheated caravan in winter 2022 with five men at a farm near Reading in Southern England. 

Pangeni arrived to the UK on a seasonal visa granted to support farmers who are struggling to recruit enough local laborers to carry out essential field work, which often involves long hours and low pay. The work has become less attractive to Europeans while farm workers from Russia and Ukraine stay away because of the war between their countries. The UK has approved granting about 45,000 seasonal visas in 2025. In 2023, workers came from as far away as Nepal, Kazakhstan and Indonesia.

Pangeni said her treatment amounts to discrimination as migrant workers find it harder to enforce their rights. Her case is the first to be brought to the employment tribunal by a laborer on the seasonal worker policy, according to advocates at Work Rights Centre, which is supporting Pangeni in her case. The system, they say, is ripe for exploitation. 

Read More: The Murky Business Behind Britain’s Rampant Food Price Inflation

The issue has drawn the attention of major supermarkets and industry groups. Almost a sixth of seasonal workers surveyed by the government last year said they were not paid in full for their work, while some reported paying recruitment fees before arriving in the country. Workers with the temporary visas are allowed to stay for as long as six months and cannot bring their families or claim benefits.

Pangeni is bringing a case against EU Plants Limited, where she worked from November 2022 to January 2023. She could receive thousands of pounds in compensation, according to Work Rights Centre. If she wins, the case could set a precedent for other migrant workers who weren’t sufficiently paid to bring a discrimination claim — which could boost the amount they can seek from employers, according to the centre’s chief executive officer, Dora-Olivia Vicol.

EU Plants Limited, which is defending the claim, didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

“There are many people who have suffered exploitation who cannot speak out about their situation.” Pangeni said in a statement. “I hope that my case will be a source of inspiration to them. I want other workers to know that they can challenge employers who underpay or mistreat them.”

--With assistance from Jeremy Diamond.

(Updates worker-origin countries in third paragraph, comment in sixth.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.