Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Why the UK’s 2015 Immigration Bill is bad for vulnerable migrant workers

BTS guest editor Lucy Mayblin introduces a series on the UK’s 2015 Immigration Bill, which passed the House of Commons last week and now heads to the House of Lords.

Lucy Mayblin
7 December 2015

Martin Deutsch/Flickr. Creative Commons.

National government policies seek to facilitate the movement of some individuals while immobilising others. ‘Good migrants’, who have relatively easy access to visas and to the labour market, often find work in well-paid, highly skilled jobs. In contrast, those seeking work in low-skilled, low-paid, and less formalised sectors are generally made to feel less welcome. Although understood to be necessary for the capitalist economy, states attempt to deter this latter group from coming or to encourage them to leave, including by attenuating their access to legal and social protections.  

These migrants thus frequently find themselves living in situations of precarity; many work illegally, many are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Such migrants are oftentimes framed as victims or as ‘modern slaves’, but, depending on the context, they are also referred to as criminals and as drains on society. The UK’s 2015 Immigration Bill, which is currently making its way through the British parliament, takes the latter approach by framing migrant labour as a threat to national economic security. If passed into law, this new bill will exacerbate the vulnerability of migrant workers and further undermine their ability to exert rights. The articles in this series lay bare the flaws of the bill and demonstrate the ways in which they will compound the problems faced by migrant labour in the United Kingdom.

Targeting the vulnerable

The UK’s 2015 Immigration Bill follows on the heels of the Modern Slavery Act, which was passed into law earlier this year. The purported aim of this latter piece of legislation was to decrease the incidence of forced labour in the UK by increasing the penalties perpetrators face if they are prosecuted. This approach will likely achieve only very limited gains in victim protection, as critiques on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery make clear, and now the Immigration Bill has the potential to further undermine the same group of workers that the Modern Slavery Act purports to protect. Its provisions will almost certainly push migrant workers, particularly those working without papers, deeper underground. In doing so, it will increase the likelihood that migrants will be exploited, coerced, and forced into labour. In short, it threatens those very workers who, only a few months ago, were ‘victims’ encouraged to seek help from the state and police.

Sonia McKay and Alice Bloch kick us off with a critique of plans to increase employer sanctions for hiring unauthorised workers. By focusing on undocumented workers generally, rather than on those specifically in situations of forced labour, they present a more complex picture of the employer-worker relationship than is usually discussed. Some employers, for example, give jobs to undocumented workers because of personal connections or because they feel they have a duty to support the vulnerable.

Katie Bales then analyses the implications of the bill for families and children, particularly the provision that would remove support for families refused asylum in the UK. One likely effect of this would be to make many families homeless, yet Bales argues that the precise families facing destitution would be determined more or less through a postcode lottery. Such hardship clearly has implications in terms of vulnerability, again suggesting that the bill would drive people with no right to work deeper underground in order to survive.

Lucy Mayblin discusses how challenges associated with asylum seekers in the UK have come about as a consequence of previous immigration controls. She asks whether the #refugeeswelcomeUK movement, which has gained steam over the summer, has the capacity to better focus public attention on the boring but extremely important process of legislating migrant rights.

Finally, Paul Blomfield wraps up the series with a scathing review of the bill as it stands today. Blomfield, a labour MP who has long engaged with issues of modern slavery, sat on the parliamentary committee in the House of Commons that scrutinised the immigration bill. He argues that the purported aims of the bill directly contradict those of the Modern Slavery Act, and that victims of slavery will be made to pay for the abuses that they have suffered.

As a whole, this collection of critical responses to the 2015 Immigration Bill illuminates the ways in which government policy can and does create the conditions necessary for migrant worker exploitation, including situations of forced labour. While liberal democracies such as the UK claim to protect and respect human rights and the rule of law, they nevertheless wilfully produce vulnerability and marginalisation amongst groups effectively excluded from the right to have rights because they crossed international borders. We hope that this collection will draw attention to this particular piece of legislation and promote more conversations about how it might impact not just an excluded underclass, but the whole of society as a whole.

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