Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Modern slavery and labour exploitation: the UK government’s dilemma

The Immigration Bill will be read in parliament today. The provisions it contains will harm rather than help those singled out for protection under the Modern Slavery Act.

Caroline Robinson
22 December 2015
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UK Parliament/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

The UK government says it considers tackling ‘modern slavery’ a priority and so enshrined in law the Modern Slavery Act in March 2015. In August I warned that the proposed Immigration Bill would create the conditions in which so-called modern slavery will flourish in the UK. The bill is now making its way through the houses of parliament, and Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) is leading advocacy to mitigate the worst elements of ‘part one’ on labour market enforcement. Despite our warnings, and after three months of parliamentary scrutiny, not once has the government considered the bill’s possible impact on ‘victims of modern slavery’. Instead, we are told that the bill will help to prevent exploitation as it will discourage vulnerable undocumented migrants from coming to and working in the UK.

When announcing the contents of the planned Immigration Bill on 21 May, the prime minister stated that it would serve a dual purpose in relation to migrant labour. It would prevent the undercutting of British workers, and it would ensure that migrant workers would not have to face “low or no wages; horrendous housing; horrific working conditions”. The Immigration Bill has been coupled with a consultation on “tackling exploitation in the labour market” that seeks to expand on the prime minister’s vision. The consultation includes: proposals to share more intelligence between enforcement agencies; suggestions that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) be provided with criminal powers; and a push to replace the licensing function of the GLA with the self-regulation of labour providers.

Both the consultation and the Immigration Bill fail to demonstrate an understanding of the drivers of exploitation in the UK. In doing so they will not only fail to prevent ‘modern slavery’, but will actually increase the likelihood that the offences of ‘trafficking’, ‘forced labour’, ‘slavery’ and ‘servitude’ occur. The measures contained within the bill wrongly link labour exploitation to migration and suggest that more immigration control is required to prevent worker vulnerability. However the government’s own indicators of ‘modern slavery’ used to detect ‘victims’ acknowledge that immigration repercussions are used to threaten, coerce, and control those held in exploitative conditions. Given this understanding, surely the government should recognise that more hostility towards migrant workers will only exacerbate exploitation. 

The government says that workers are exploited when they have no right to work in the UK, and that measures are required to crack down on those who are not working legally and their employers. However, its own statistics do not support the premise of this argument. The National Crime Agency’s ‘strategic assessment on the nature and scale of human trafficking 2014’ released last week reports that “where the nationality is known 82% of potential victims exploited for labour were EEA nationals legally entitled to reside and work in the UK”. This represents an increase on last year’s 78 percent and the number of UK nationals experiencing exploitation has also increased by 55 percent. The UK is now the fourth most prevalent country of origin for potential victims of labour exploitation. If the vast majority of those exploited for their labour are EEA nationals, this suggest that the question of migrant vulnerability is less associated with status and more to do with the hostility, stigmatisation, and marginalisation of migrant workers and the failure to enforce labour standards across the board.

A second question that arises when the Immigration Bill and consultation on exploitation are read together is why the government is seeking to remodel the GLA—viewed as a best practice example globally. During the Modern Slavery Bill’s passage through parliament, FLEX advocated for the expansion of the GLA into more labour sectors, coupled with the resources to do so effectively. At the time the government was resistant, but did agree to a review of the GLA. The consultation on labour market exploitation fulfils this function, according to officials, yet it neither consider the key elements of the GLA’s success to date, nor asks how the GLA model can protect vulnerable workers in sectors outside its existing remit. Instead the consultation sets out a series of possible powers and responsibilities that fall far wide of the GLA’s current work, suggesting that it needs to focus on something called ‘organised labour market exploitation’. This phenomenon, the consultation suggests, is the big issue, rather than general non-compliance in the labour market. In shifting the terms of the debate towards organised crime, the consultation risks dragging the resource-constrained GLA away from its successful licensing and monitoring programmes and towards a smaller number of serious criminal cases.

FLEX argues that in driving the GLA away from its broader licensing and monitoring work, abuses will increase and exploitation will flourish. The channels through which abused workers might seek help have already narrowed in the UK. For example, the Pay and Work Rights helpline has been absorbed into the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) to save £500,000 annually. FLEX is told that this move has meant that ACAS cannot cope with the level of calls and is directing abused workers away from its helpline towards its website. Furthermore, employment tribunal fees mean that it is now much less likely that workers will pursue cases of abuse, with a 70 percent drop in the number of claims since fees were introduced. If the GLA is also diverted away from protecting vulnerable workers by sending it after organised crime then the UK worker protection framework suddenly looks very bare bones indeed.

The measures proposed in the Immigration Bill and related consultation seem to collide head-on with the government’s bold rhetoric to ‘lead the fight’ on ‘modern slavery’. Increasing immigration controls, inspections, and penalties will make all migrant workers more vulnerable to abuse. Couple this environment with the diversion of resources from the inspection of labour abuses towards serious organised crime and it seems that the UK labour market will be ripe for exploitation. Just months after the Modern Slavery Act became law, lets hope that policy makers remember their fine rhetoric that invoked the spirit of William Wilberforce at every opportunity. As the Immigration Bill enters the House of Lords, members of parliament should call into question a set of measures that, instead of making the UK a world leader in combatting ‘modern slavery’, risk creating some of the most poorly protected workers in Europe.

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