Bad news for UK government – Labour exploitation is rising and its anti-slavery measures are currently falling well short

By Don Flynn,
Director Migrants’ Rights Network and PICUM Chair.

This blog was first published by Migrants’ Rights Network on 2 November 2015.

Victims of exploitative employers or ‘illegal workers’ who should be thrown out the country?  Government anti-slavery plans are in danger of failing unless this dangerous ambiguity is addressed.

Two bits of news last week will be seen as unwelcome by all those who think the Modern Slavery Act will have finally crack the problem of exploited labour.

The first comes from information that the Edmonton MP, Kate Osamor, managed to dig out from the Home Office after around a round of relentless questioning back in October.

In queries put to the government’s new Modern Slavery Minister, Karen Bradley, Osamor sought information on the numbers of people identified as victims of forced labour and who had been granted a safe haven.

Bradly replied that since 2010, 1,200 officially identified victims of human trafficking applied for asylum but only 782 were given permission to stay.  This meant that just over one-third, or 418 people who had been identified a victims of a heinous crime had been denied a legal status here.

The second piece of challenging news came from a senior Euro-cop.  According to the Guardian, Brian Donald, chief of staff of Europol, told an international conference on human trafficking in Madrid at the weekend that the onset of winter is worsening the desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, many of whom are fleeing the civil war in Syria. The paper reported him as saying that, as the European Union struggles to deal with the influx of refugees, their need for money makes them susceptible to unscrupulous gangs operating along routes, in refugee centres and in destination countries.

Migrants were being “identified for exploitation, especially those of a young age, young women, the unaccompanied”, with prostitution and illegal labour being the most likely outcomes.

Donald said the children travelling alone or in groups without adults were particularly at risk. European law enforcement agencies had logged at least 7,000 unaccompanied minors among refugees and migrants entering Europe in the recent past, but “that’s nowhere near the actual number.”

So, the gist of the problem is that:

(a) the UK appears to be failing an alarmingly high proportion of people found to be victims of forced labour and who are in need of protection by refusing them a secure residence status; and

(b) expect this number to grow as the shocking incapacity of the EU to manage refugee movements at its frontiers provides an even bigger reservoir for the criminal gangs to exploit.

Proliferating initiatives

Meanwhile the UK authorities are coming up with any number of initiatives aimed at showing how determined they are to get to grips with the problem.

The anti-slavery commissioner appointed under the terms of the Modern Slavery Act, Kevin Hyland, has issued a call for ‘better support’ to be given to victims of exploitation.

In an ‘action plan’ published in October he called for action across the following areas:

  • Help victims feel safe and confident enough to come forward and share their accounts
  • Make sure police know how to respond to victims and (that) criminal activity is recorded and investigated
  • Work with businesses to ensure they are certain their supply chains do not involve slavery
  • Raise awareness of slavery with hospital workers, schools and councils and educate people about what to do if they see it happening

But there has to be concern about how deep these messages will be carried into the places where exploited and vulnerable people are struggling to survive.  It is unlikely that the most grievously affected by labour exploitation will come forward to ask the authorities for help as long as protected status is refused to one in three who apply for it. And those offered some support might find it is limited to a mere 45 days of ‘respite’ to allow them to recover from the trauma of enforced labour.

These are problems which are in danger of being compounded by the way the current Immigration Bill has set out proposals for a director of labour market enforcement.

In principle the idea of having a person with the power to coordinate strategies to track down and deal with the exploiters of labour is a good one. It has generally been welcomed. But concerns arise from the detail of how the holder of this new post will carry out their responsibilities.

The two government departments with the most vital interest in the work of the new director, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and Home Office, began a consultationon how this work should be carried out earlier in October which runs until the 7 December.

Vulnerable migrants

The consultation paper sees migrants and refugees as a group of people particularly at risk of exploitation.  It writes that “migrant labour is particularly targeted by exploitative employers for a number of reasons.”

Some victims will have paid an individual or an agency in their home country for the opportunity to work in the UK, possibly starting to build up debts that are later held against them. In many cases they come willingly, with the hope of a job, accommodation and the chance to earn a living. However, on arrival, they find themselves working excessive hours, for illegal levels of pay and living in sub-standard accommodation.

It goes on to say:

For others, travel documents can be retained by the groups that organise the work and individuals find it difficult to get the documents returned, suffering from threats of physical harm or intimidation when they try.

But the consultation paper fails to provide the assurance that those found to be working in abusive conditions will be treated as the victims of a crime, rather than its perpetrators.

Unease about this strategy is bound to be increased by the references to ‘Immigration Enforcement’ as one of the bodies tied into the collaboration that is expected from various agencies.  Yet the same Immigration Bill that offers a director of labour market enforcement ostensibly to challenge exploitation also seeks to criminalise people found working in the UK without the appropriate immigration status.

It is impossible to be confident that the Home Office and its borders and enforcement operation really does place the protection of victims of exploitation among its highest of priorities.

The Bill currently signals a keen interest in service industries, like late night retailers, minicab firms and social care as sectors in which it expects to be most active in tracking down so-called illegal workers.  But these are also amongst the worst offending business for abusive and exploitative working conditions.

The expert group on labour exploitation, FLEX, has recently published a ‘policy blueprint’ which comes up with the best way to tackle the dangerous ambiguity between protecting vulnerable workers and treating them as criminals to be fined, sent to prison and reported.

FLEX calls for the creation of a ‘firewall’ between labour protection and immigration enforcement.  This would entail giving an absolute assurance to all migrant workers found working in exploitative conditions that they will be provided with a secure legal residence status. This would extend considerably beyond the limited period of ‘respite’ currently on offer, and which appears to be denied to a sizeable number of those in need.

Migrant groups should be looking for opportunities to sit down with representatives of those employers who are concerned about exploitation, the trade unions and others to work out a proposal for a protection strategy that embodies this principle of a firewall between immigration enforcement and anti-slavery protection.  They should also be having a good look at the labour market enforcement consultation document with a view to getting in submissions by 7 December explaining exactly how this should be done.

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