Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Sanctioning employers does not prevent exploitation and unfree labour

Strengthening the sanctions against undocumented work will not stop the employment of undocumented workers. However, sanctions have the potential to increase exploitation while damaging community cohesion.

Alice Bloch Sonia McKay
8 December 2015
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Restaurants in London's Chinatown protest raids by the UK border agency in 2013. Peter Marshall/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

The UK government’s 2015 Immigration Bill proposes two major changes. First, it introduces new and increased sanctions against employers hiring migrants who are undocumented, including civil or criminal penalties imposed by the courts. Even though these target employers, the outcome is that workers can be more exploited because some employers manage risks by lowering wages and increasing working hours. Currently, employers can be fined up to £20,000 for each worker found working without permission, and there is mounting evidence that ethnic minority employers in the food and restaurant sector are especially frequent targets of immigration raids. In interviews conducted for our research, employers spoke of unannounced raids involving large numbers of police, of terrified customers and staff, and of suffering losses in business as a result.

If this were not bad enough, the proposed legislation also orchestrates an even tougher regime against migrants by introducing a specific criminal offence of working without documents. Until now this has not been classified as a criminal offence, despite the frequent use of the term ‘illegal workers’ in the press, which feeds into the belief that crimes are being committed. Under the existing law migrants caught in raids may have been liable to deportation but not to prison.

The Immigration Bill additionally permits the confiscation of migrant wages prior to deportation, the prosecution and imprisonment of employers, and the forced closure of businesses. These are the kinds of penalties that, until now, had been reserved for terrorist cases. Stated otherwise, the most vulnerable workers in the UK, and those who employ them, will be treated as if they were potential terrorists if the Immigration Bill is passed unamended.

In a briefing paper published in September 2015, the UK government states that its aims are to “make it harder” for undocumented migrants to live and work in the UK by imposing “tougher penalties and sanctions on rogue employers”. The message imparted is that the aim is primarily to prevent exploitation and focus on ‘bad apple’ employers. Clearly, the best way of eliminating exploitation is not to promote it by depriving individuals of the meagre wages they have already earned.

Our contention is that the proposals will make life even harder for undocumented migrants and increase the potential for their exploitation, as employers will seek to pass onto them the costs of the tougher sanctions regime. This transfer occurs with the sufferance of undocumented migrants themselves. They are aware that part of their employers’ rationale for paying them less is that they bear the risks of raids and sanctions, and thus realise that they must accept lower wages and worse conditions as part of the bargain. If sanctions become tougher, they have no alternative but to accept even less in order to maintain their employment.

Employer sanctions were first introduced in the USA in the 1970s and initially supported by trade unions concerned at wage undercutting. However, today they are opposed by migrant groups and trade unions whose experience has been that sanctions have not eliminated but promoted exploitative work. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that raids have been conducted at the behest of rival employers or when workers start to organise themselves.

Lest it be thought that such things would not happen in the UK, we were told of cases where employers were targeted through anonymous phone calls to immigration; of raids being unlawfully conducted, and of rising fear amongst staff and customers. This is reflected in the 2014 report of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, which states that raids are not always driven by intelligence, are often unjustified, and that certain types of employers are profiled and targeted. The reality is that raids, financial sanctions, and punitive deportations deter neither those who need to work nor those who need workers. Workers assess risks, take what measures they can to reduce them, and accept the consequences if caught. Migrants who make it to the UK need to work in order to repay their migration costs and to fulfil other obligations. There is no simple path back to the time before their migration.

Equally, the imperatives that push employers towards employing those without documents do not disappear simply because sanctions are increased. Regardless of the risks involved, in specific circumstances employers will employ undocumented migrants. First, where family members or close friends are involved, no amount of sanction can eradicate such obligations (and surely family and community solidarity is something to be celebrated not condemned). Second, employers who have experienced discrimination and exclusion in the past tend to place a premium on those they believe they can trust, which often means people within their circle regardless of status.

Third, work visa restrictions have caused significant shortages of skills at an affordable price. Small restaurant owners simply cannot afford the £29,570 (after deductions for food and accommodation) that the rules require for migrants hired from abroad—twice the average wage for the industry according to Office for National Statistics—and remain competitive, leaving little option but to hire those without work visas since the skill set they need is often simply not available in the UK. Finally, some of the employers we interviewed had themselves experienced hardship in the past, and were now guided by a sense of political and humanitarian solidarity that did not permit them to turn people away.

It is, of course, also true that some employers hire undocumented workers in order to intentionally exploit them. However, it is beyond comprehension to assume that such employers would cease to do so when the law also increases their capacity to exploit by making workers even more vulnerable. Employers also attempt to minimise risks, perhaps by employing only a small number of undocumented workers, or by employing workers for short periods of time. They calculate that this reduces the risk of being caught, but their goal is to minimise rather than eliminate risk (see our recent published research on employer sanctions and on employer perspectives).

Finally we assert that sanctions threaten community well-being. They tear communities apart by highlighting divisions, increasing racism and intolerance. In a world riddled by conflict and divided between rich and poor, there has to be a right to seek safety and security. Governments can either recognise that the causes of migration need to be addressed or they can try to pull up the drawbridge, but no moat is so dangerous that it will dissuade all those desperate to come. Instead, all they will accomplish is the construction of a prison for us all. The imperatives that drive individuals to migrate are not going away. As we have argued, what the new legislation will do is to increase exploitative working conditions, effectively promoting labour that is unfree.

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