The people exploited for their labour across the UK are likely oblivious to the Modern Slavery Act that has made its way through Parliament over the past year. That this act seeks to be ‘world leading’ is meaningless to many who are being mistreated and see no way out of exploitation. Indeed, even the review of the UK’s support framework—its National Referral Mechanism (NRM)—will have limited value to the victims of severe exploitation in this country.
In ongoing research Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) is conducting with partners in Romania and the Netherlands, we are speaking to trafficked persons, service providers and government agencies about identification and support in cases of trafficking for labour exploitation. The picture emerging shows a need for practical solutions, not benevolence.
People do not think of themselves as ‘slaves’, ‘trafficked persons’ or ‘victims,’ but they know how vulnerable they have been and often still are. Many victims of trafficking talk about a lack of options that led them to their trafficking situation, not a lack of awareness about their rights. We are finding that the point at which people decide to try and leave exploitative work to seek help is therefore not a moment of enlightenment and rarely occurs when they encounter government agencies. Instead people seek to bring an end to exploitation because they can face no more, and a tipping point is reached. Tragically people will tolerate a great deal of abuse before arriving at this limit. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that society too normalises significant labour abuse before demanding action.
The Minister for Modern Slavery, Karen Bradley, suggested during the Modern Slavery Act debate that victims need the state because they are vulnerable, but in fact they need the State to prevent them from being vulnerable. The problem with the narrative of slavery is that it places a heavy moral burden upon the would-be abolitionist to save slaves from slave masters—terms too often invoked during the Modern Slavery Bill discussions. However the murky truth is that those faced with homelessness, detention or deportation if they leave a situation of exploitation do not see it as a simple choice between good and evil. Many are unprepared to take the gamble that they might gain access to support for trafficked persons, for they know that the risk of not gaining acceptance as a ‘victim’ is high.
Much of the final stages of the Modern Slavery Act were absorbed by debate on the overseas domestic worker visa, which ties employee to employer for their permitted stay in the UK and creates the perfect conditions for exploitation to flourish. The government is determined to retain the tie, overturning a House of Lords amendment to restore to domestic workers the right to change employers. The government’s logic is that if workers are not legally able to leave an exploitative employer then they will seek help from the authorities rather than friends, communities, unions or NGOs. The conclusion of this narrative is that the state and its agencies will help you if you ask for help, are a ‘genuine’ victim and agree to help catch bad people. This belies two simple facts. First, most exploited workers do not want to be victims, they want solutions. Second, help is not as forthcoming as the minister would have us believe. Even where it is available, it too often fails to provide a lasting solution.
On the first of these, any worker I care to think of wants their wages, the job for which they signed up and the freedom to leave if they are not happy with the conditions. Yet the government has created an environment of shrinking labour protections and a lack of political will to enforce those that do exist. Trafficked persons, interviewed by FLEX, ask why no one came to ask them about their working conditions whilst they were facing severe exploitation, and why their employer seemingly had the power to act with impunity. They wanted to have the chance to ask the authorities if there was a way out of their situation and if the law affords them any power over their employer turned exploiter.
Identifying cases of labour exploitation requires pro-active labour inspection with the primary purpose to help people access their labour rights as human rights. Yet since the 2010 UK Spending Review key labour inspectorates—including the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), the Health and Safety Executive and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate—have seen steep cuts in their resources. In line with the government’s red tape cutting, de-regulation agenda, pro-active labour inspections have also been restricted.
Perhaps even more damaging, however, has been the GLA’s move from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Home Office and its new role as part of ‘Joint Border Intelligence Units’ set out in the Modern Slavery Strategy. For the GLA to effectively monitor and enforce labour license conditions it must not be tarnished by association with immigration inspection—labour rights must take primacy. As our colleagues in the Netherlands are finding during our research, when their labour inspectors conduct joint visits with the ‘Aliens Police’, workers simply do not come forward and exploitation is left uncovered.
The second problem is the lack of any clear or lasting positive outcomes for trafficked persons who do come forward. Migrant victims in particular see immigration officials (or as many put it ‘Home Office’) as all powerful, holding all the cards and making opaque decisions about people’s rights to remain in the UK that appear more akin to Russian roulette than logic. Furthermore, once someone has agreed to be ‘identified’ and is referred in to the NRM, the 45 days of support provided offers little long-term benefit, and is brought to an end once a trafficking determination is made. FLEX hears many cases of victims becoming destitute upon exit from the system, vulnerable to re-trafficking and certain that the authorities have nothing to offer. Interestingly, data on re-trafficking, which would seem to be the best way of testing whether the current system works, is not officially recorded by government.
It will take politicians reflecting on their role as enablers rather than saviours to ensure that all those who work in the UK are assured their labour rights. Some say it is not possible for this type of reflection to take place in a discourse focussed largely on extreme exploitation, but I disagree. Despite the grave failings of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, the debate has provided space for admissions from all parties: that workers are being exploited because our labour market thrives on exploitation; that many are vulnerable because policies and laws make them so; and that the State has a positive obligation to take preventative measures to protect those at risk of trafficking. As the dust settles on the modern slavery debate and the UK gears up for an election, now more than ever we must ensure that those in power are held to account for their rhetoric.
The Pro-Act Project includes FLEX in the UK, FairWork in the Netherlands and ADPARE in Romania and is co-funded by the Prevention of and Fight against Crime Programme of the European Union.
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.