Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Tied visas and quick fixes: the UK’s post-Brexit labour market

The British government wants to import migrant labourers using a scheme that will leave workers vulnerable to forced and precarious labour. Is this their idea of leadership against ‘modern slavery’?

Caroline Robinson
1 March 2019, 5.30pm
The radish harvest in Norfolk.
Dan Law/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On 8 October 2018 we published the BTS Round Table on the Future of Work, in which 12 experts explain recent changes to the nature of work and offer new ideas in labour policy, organising, and activism. This piece has been written in response.

In 2016 the UK voted to leave the European Union. At the time many British businesses raised serious concerns about the likely impact of a leave vote upon the labour market. At the heart of their concerns was a fear of labour shortages resulting from the end of free movement within the EU. Some experts from government, civil society and industry have called for a renewed focus on improving wages and conditions in order to entice British workers into jobs that were previously only palatable to EU nationals.

This would be in line with the UK’s stated ambition of leading the world in the fight against ‘modern slavery’. If employers must treat workers better as a result of Brexit, then surely this helps to advance the cause? Yet rather than welcoming this new world of work, the government has instead introduced a temporary migrant worker scheme that will greatly increase the risk of ‘modern slavery’ in Britain.

Migrants for the fields

In September, following sustained business lobbying to address worker shortages, the government introduced a a new ‘seasonal workers pilot’. The pilot will bring non-EU workers to the UK agricultural sector by tying their work visas to two ‘pilot operators’. For those of us working to end labour exploitation in the UK, this is a backwards step that will create a new worker underclass.

The new pilot to bring non-EU nationals to fill agricultural labour shortages responds directly to industry concerns. Indeed, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, justified the new scheme when it was first announced by saying, “We have listened to the powerful arguments from farmers about the need for seasonal labour to keep the horticulture industry productive and profitable.”

Without effective safeguards, this new scheme will be a gift for those who wish to exploit workers.

No mention was made of any concerns from workers, and crucial issues regarding the design of this new scheme are yet to be determined. We do not yet know whether workers will be allowed to change employer, to bring family members and other dependents with them, or to live outside employer-provided accommodation. Instead, the government has said that the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) – one of the four key UK labour inspectorates – will oversee wages and living standards for workers in the scheme. Despite the government saying they are working with the GLAA to get the scheme right, crucial elements of the GLAA’s role in propping up worker protections in the scheme have also yet to be determined.

A scheme or a scam?

Without effective safeguards, this new scheme will be a gift for those who wish to exploit workers. Two examples show why. First, the limited six months stay under the scheme means it is unlikely that workers will have time to form migrant community or trade union ties. Because of this, pro-active inspections of labour sites are essential to reach these isolated workers. As yet no extra resources for proactive labour inspection to police the scheme have been announced. Second, there is a high in-built risk of debt bondage inherent in the scheme, with overseas labour providers likely to charge large fees to workers. It is essential that the GLAA licenses labour providers in sending countries to reduce this risk. Whilst the GLAA currently licenses labour providers within the EU, an extension of their remit to the rest of the world is a very different, and far more complex, proposition.

As the UK enters into new trading partnerships and brings new workers to our shores, it is vital that we put in place and fund systems to prevent exploitation. Our labour inspectorates need essential resources to do their job – a little over double current levels if we’re even to reach the International Labour Organisation’s recommended one inspector per 10,000 workers. The tried and tested GLAA licensing system will have to be expanded to high-risk labour sectors that are likely to see an increase in migrant workers in years to come. The care and construction sectors, for example, are unlikely to survive without workers from outside the UK.

For the new seasonal worker pilot, the Agricultural Wages Boards that previously set standards in England and Wales should be reinstated. Furthermore, a real effort must be made to ensure workers drive the conversation about their pay, conditions, and treatment in this high-risk scheme. Finally, even if these steps are taken, exploitation will not only continue to exist but also remain largely hidden unless the UK establishes channels for individual workers to report abuses. The UK desperately needs a 24-hour complaints line for workers that can offer resolution to problems raised.

This post-Brexit vision for the UK labour market looks like a recipe for abuse and exploitation. However, there is still time to ensure a better future for work. We have a chance to reimagine the labour market and labour standards, and to reverse recent attacks on regulations and worker protections. For a country with aspirations to lead the world in the fight against exploitation, we can surely do better than schemes that are designed to appease business interests at the expense of workers.

This project is supported by the Ford Foundation but the viewpoints expressed here are explicitly those of the authors. The foundation's support is not tacit endorsement within.

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