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FLEX marks 10 Year Anniversary: Reflections on a decade working to end labour exploitation

October 31, 2023
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Lucila Granada

Chief Executive

This year FLEX is marking 10 years of working to end labour exploitation.

FLEX was founded in 2013 as a policy organisation with a vision of a world in which there is no human trafficking for labour exploitation.

We have come a long way since then and are proud to have established ourselves as an expert voice in the UK challenging the systems and structures that make workers vulnerable to abuse and championing the rights and voices of workers in the most high-risk, insecure and lowest paid sectors of the economy.

However, over the past decade, the context in which FLEX operates has become increasingly challenging. And while we are incredibly proud of all that we have achieved over the last 10 years, we have had to dedicate increased efforts to challenging numerous crises and disastrous political decisions. These have torn apart the UK’s systems for helping modern slavery survivors, and created environments where migrants are criminalised and exploitation can thrive, leaving many vulnerable people’s lives hanging by a thread.

The heart-breaking reality is that in 2023, when it comes to the way the UK is approaching labour exploitation, including its extreme forms of modern slavery and human trafficking, we are in a worse position than when we started.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act promised but failed to deliver enhanced protections and support for victims and survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.

Brexit has led to labour shortages and a complete rehaul of the immigration system which has increased risks for workers.

A tragedy in Essex in 2019, where 39 Vietnamese migrants lost their lives, exposed how dangerous it is when there are no legal routes for low paid labour migration.

A worker exploitation scandal in Leicester’s textile factories exposed what is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of exploitation in the garment industry.

The Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies and punitive legislation, including the recently introduced Nationality and Borders Act, have made it increasingly difficult for migrants to live and work in the UK, by criminalising irregular work and permitting data sharing between agencies, creating a culture of fear that prevents victims of exploitation coming forward to authorities and reporting their abuse.

This year anti-migrant rhetoric and measures have ramped up even further and the passing of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 leaves a solemn milestone in the history of the UK’s anti-slavery efforts; a piece of legislation that has caused outcry across not just the country, but internationally. It criminalises many victims of trafficking and exploitation and is a gift to the traffickers and perpetrators of labour exploitation.

These dramatic shifts in the political landscape are firm reminders that the work of FLEX and other organisations working to end labour exploitation are needed now more than ever.

What we have achieved

The reality is grim, but at FLEX we try to remind ourselves of the positives as well, and that in many national contexts organisations like us are working to hold the line, to prevent the worst-case scenario. And our wins remind us how important it is to keep going.

For over a decade we have advocated on behalf of the cleaners, hospitality workers, couriers, construction workers, agricultural workers and many others on whom our economy relies, but who are so often treated as commodities rather than people, exploited and made invisible.

Often migrants, women and ethnic minorities face further vulnerabilities due to structural inequalities. The lived experience of all workers, including the most marginalised groups, has been the foundation of all of FLEX’s work. That is why we have pioneered participatory approaches involving workers in research and advocacy, ensuring they have a say in influencing the policy solutions that affect them.

We have been uniquely positioned to act as a bridge between high-level policymakers and the needs and experiences of exploited and at-risk workers through collaboration with frontline organisations supporting these communities, mobilising cooperation in addressing labour exploitation by providing leadership and expertise across sectors.

Our work contributed greatly to the Migration Advisory Committee including labour exploitation in their analysis, which we hope will inform the future of the UK immigration system. We produced the first independent research into workers experiences on UK seasonal work in agriculture since workers who came via the SAWS in previous years were never independently consulted, even though that scheme ran for 71 years. While the scheme remains in need of fundamental reform, we’ve since been instrumental in achieving a ban on zero-hour contracts under the scheme and the commitment to the national minimum wage for migrant agricultural workers.

As well as our policy and research work, we have established strong advocacy coalition networks to address key policy gaps and ensure policy advocacy is informed by the people affected by or at risk of labour exploitation: the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group or ‘LEAG’, the ‘Detention Taskforce’ and the Working Group on Women Workers. We’ve also developed a renewed training arm reaching out to organisations supporting communities at risk and have expanded our capacity to work with businesses to improve accountability in their supply chains.

These are great achievements that we can celebrate, but our work is far from done. Our research and policy work continues to highlight the areas that still urgently need addressing and provide practical solutions that the government should follow to address exploitation that continues to take place in UK labour markets and to ensure that all workers can exercise their rights.

You can read more about our impact over the past 10 years here.

Looking to the future

As we look to the future, at FLEX we will continue to:

  • Evidence and push for policies which address the risks of exploitation posed by the post-Brexit immigration system.
  • Highlight the need for secure reporting systems which enable people to report abuse and exploitation without fear of immigration action being taken against them, and push for better support and protection for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.
  • Increase knowledge and capacity of community organisations, local authorities and statutory services to respond to and address risks of exploitation and support at-risk and exploited workers to access their rights through our training programme.
  • Advocate for a more effective legislative and regulatory framework, and to ensure that workers are front and centre in identifying risks and developing solutions to improve accountability in supply chains and ensure their views and experiences inform policy solutions.
  • Build understanding of the impact of intersecting inequalities on different groups of workers, including migrant and women workers, young people, and other minority groups; and to explore ways in which their voices and views can inform and shape policy solutions.
  • Shed a light on under-researched low-paid sectors of the economy and build evidence of the impact of gaps in labour market enforcement on workers and risk of exploitation.

To put it simply, we will continue to challenge the systems and structures which enable exploitation to happen in the first place.