Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

The UK, ‘modern slavery’, and the elephant in the room: prevention

Europe hosts many examples of how to prevent exploitation in national labour markets. This EU Anti-Trafficking Day, why doesn’t the UK follow suit?

Graffiti by Banksy in London. DeptfordJon/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

For 10 years the European Union has marked anti-trafficking day on 18 October; and the UK, for now at least, has followed suit. Over the past decade the UK has made some major advances in its response to human trafficking, including making forced labour a serious crime and establishing a system, albeit deeply flawed, for referring and supporting potential victims of exploitation. Yet, when it comes to preventing labour exploitation, the UK’s response has been left behind by the progress made in other countries.

The UK’s ratification of the Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention in 2016 was a game changer. The treaty offers a strong framework for preventing labour exploitation, including: widespread coverage of labour law; effective labour inspection; and protection for all workers regardless of their status.

Sadly, whilst the UK was one of the first countries to sign up to this protocol, some 18 months later organisations like my own – Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) – are still calling on the government to take its aims seriously. In our new report Risky business: tackling exploitation in the UK labour market’, launched today, we set out an action plan for the UK to make giant strides towards preventing labour exploitation. With it we hope to make this year’s anti-trafficking day the day the tide turns on exploitation.

Risky Business not only offers a framework for preventing human trafficking for labour exploitation in the UK, but also sets out the reasons why people end up in exploitation in the first place. By combining research into high-risk labour sectors with testimony from people identified as potential victims of trafficking and the organisations that work with them, FLEX maps the landscape of potential exploitation in the UK labour market. Importantly, we look at the way our labour market is structured to facilitate risk of exploitation and the absence of safety nets for workers who get into trouble.

Many of these risks are well documented: precarious working arrangements; one-sided flexibility in the workplace; or what the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is now calling ‘wage theft’. We have found that these vulnerable working conditions often combine with other factors like unstable migration status; lack of support through trade unions or other organisations; unclear or absent routes to remedies for abuses; poverty through low wages; limits to welfare provision; and woefully inadequate labour rights enforcement all greatly increase the likelihood that exploitation will occur. The stories we have documented from those identified as trafficked confirm this.

Making this year’s anti-trafficking day count

To prevent exploitation, there needs to be a strong emphasis on preventing these key risks. Theresa May recognised the importance of tackling precarious employment relationships when she launched the Taylor Review on Modern Employment Practices in October 2016, with the promise of reform to the UK labour market. Unfortunately, the Taylor Review process was flawed, its recommendations were unambitious, and the government’s response has been – so far – silence. Interestingly the Taylor review almost completely ignored the role of the UK labour inspectorates in enforcing labour law.

The UK’s labour inspection and enforcement capacity deserves attention, however, as when it comes to comparisons with Europe it does not do very well. FLEX’s report shows how the UK has just 0.4 labour inspectors per 10,000 workers. This is way below the International Labour Organisation’s recommended 1 to 10,000 figure; half the 0.8 Poland has; and under a third of the 1.3 inspectors per 10,000 workers deployed by Norway. FLEX finds the UK’s closest neighbour, Ireland, spends almost double that of the UK on labour enforcement: £14.40 per worker in Ireland compared to £7.70 per worker in the UK.

Bearing in mind the extremely limited resources, it is even more worrying that the UK labour inspection authorities choose to work reactively – acting where complaints arise – instead of dedicating the majority of their time to proactive, intelligence-led activity. Placing the burden on vulnerable, isolated and fearful workers to come forward simply does not work as a strategy to prevent exploitation. For an idea of the limits of this approach, FLEX shows how just 0.8% of all workers estimated not to have been paid the national minimum wage in 2016/17 reported the situation to the main UK helpline. Without proactive labour inspection, the UK is destined to be fertile ground for labour abuses and exploitation.

Without proactive labour inspection, the UK is destined to be fertile ground for labour abuses and exploitation.

A further worrying trend is the ever-closer union between labour inspection and immigration enforcement in the UK, and an immigration-led ‘modern slavery’ response. This overlap produces deeply contradictory priorities and severely hampers efforts to prevent the exploitation of undocumented workers. As a point of comparison, our report reveals how a similar union threatened to bring Brazil’s labour inspection efforts to its knees, until the establishment of a clear firewall between labour inspection and immigration enforcement efforts.

The UK would do well to meet the forced labour protocol’s call to create labour laws that prevent exploitation for all workers in all sectors of the economy. The UK’s current two-tiered system, which criminalises undocumented workers rather than allowing them access to remedies, offers a get out of jail free card to unscrupulous employers.

So for this year’s anti-trafficking day, it’s time to look at why the world’s fifth largest economy is desperately failing to protect the workers on which it depends. We have the resources and the evidence we need to drive down the risk of exploitation in the UK labour market. All we need now is the political will.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.