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Brexit immigration plans could lead to exploitation of temporary workers, FLEX warns

November 1, 2017

FLEX urges Migration Advisory Committee review to learn lessons from the USA and Australia where temporary worker schemes have led to widespread exploitation.

In a submission to the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) consultation on EEA workers in the UK labour market, FLEX has warned that temporary migrant workers could be at a high risk of exploitation in the UK after Brexit. The MAC review was commissioned to help advise the government on what a post-Brexit immigration system should look like and what place EU workers should have in the UK after Brexit.

Recent FLEX research has shown that EU workers in the UK are already at increased risk of exploitation due to immigration uncertainty linked to Brexit. Workers are being wrongly told that they are not ‘legal’ any more, and unscrupulous employers are taking advantage of workers’ fear and insecurity. Answers are urgently needed to stop the rumour and uncertainty that is allowing unscrupulous employers to exploit EU workers. But to design an immigration system that allows temporary workers from the EU to access the UK labour market safely, the government must learn lessons from other countries where labour migration schemes have opened the door to widespread and severe exploitation.

Recent news stories have repeatedly highlighted the kinds of abuse and exploitation that migrant workers often face in Australia’s agricultural industry. Temporary worker schemes in the United States and Australia, in particular the H2 Guestworker scheme in the USA and the Australian Seasonal Worker Programme, have been notorious for abuses such as underpayment or non-payment of wages, appalling living conditions and dangerous working conditions. Research has shown that workers are made vulnerable to such abuse by the terms of their visa, as they are reliant upon one employer for their status and cannot change jobs – if they leave their employer, they are in breach of their visa conditions and become undocumented. This places the power squarely in the hands of the employer, who knows that workers are dependent and therefore unlikely to complain for fear of losing their job and their right to work in the country.

FLEX therefore recommends that any temporary migration schemes for EU workers should include the right to for workers to change employers without losing their status or entitlements. This must be backed up by careful oversight and enforcement of labour standards under such schemes, and clear information must be provided to all workers about what their rights are and where they can complain to if they experience abuse or exploitation.

EU workers’ fear of being or becoming undocumented after Brexit, and the fact that this is already leading some workers into exploitation, is a clear warning of things to come if workers are reliant upon one job or one employer for their right to live and work in the UK. If the government is serious in its promise to eradicate modern slavery in the UK, it must ensure that workers are not put at risk by its own immigration policies.

Read FLEX’s full submission here.