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FLEX Response to Immigration White Paper: Government must fund workplace inspections to prevent rise in modern slavery

December 13, 2018

FLEX position on the immigration white paper; available for comment

Today the government has released its immigration white paper. The paper outlines its proposals for the post-Brexit immigration regime, to be codified in law in the Immigration Bill.

The white paper lays out plans for two temporary migrant worker schemes:

  • A 12-month visa for short-term workers to enter all areas of the UK labour market
  • The Seasonal Workers Pilot in the agricultural sector

It comes as welcome news that FLEX’s concerns about tied visas have been listened to in the Immigration White Paper and the new temporary short-term visa will not tie workers to a single employer or sector. Yet there is still a high-risk inherent in short-term visas. FLEX supports migrant workers’ wishes to come to the UK to earn a living yet believes that these schemes will facilitate human trafficking and forced labour if they are not properly designed and workers coming here are not protected from abuse and exploitation. 

Temporary work visas and human trafficking risks

Temporary work schemes like those described in the white paper pose risks for migrant workers and can lead to human trafficking and modern slavery. The previous Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme which ran in the UK from shortly after the Second World War until 2013 was known to have frequent instances of labour abuse and exploitation. Workers reported not being paid the minimum wage and being misled about the length of work available.

The new schemes

New twelve month temporary short-term visas

Under plans set out in today’s Immigration White Paper, workers will be allowed to come to the UK for a maximum of twelve months with no-renewal for at least a year thereafter. They will not be entitled to access public funds, or rights to extend their stay, remain permanently or to bring dependants. Critically their ability to form community and trade union ties that are crucial to prevent labour abuse and exploitation will be greatly restricted due to the temporary nature of their stay.

Seasonal Workers Pilot in the farming sector

The new scheme will recruit workers from outside the European Economic Area only. The UK’s Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) will oversee the scheme and has been tasked with ensuring overseas labour providers abide by their local labour law alongside Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority licensing requirements. However, with no additional funding for the GLAA announced, its ability to oversee disparate labour providers in countries with which it does not have strong links will be severely limited. For more previous information on the specifics of this scheme, please see here.

The risk of debt bondage and other forms of exploitation in temporary work schemes

There is a high risk of debt bondage and other forms of slavery and exploitation in temporary migrant worker schemes. Debt bondage occurs when a person is forced to work to pay off a debt and is a key feature of much human trafficking. Today, it is estimated by the International Labour Organisation that around 50% of victims of forced labour in the private economy are in debt bondage.

The risk of debt bondage is present in temporary migrant worker schemes like the twelve month temporary short-term visa scheme and the Seasonal Workers Pilot because workers will need to pay visa and flight fees to join the schemes, and may additionally be charged recruitment fees by labour brokers overseas. Workers seeking low wage jobs abroad are unlikely to be capable of paying these costs upfront, so they are often packaged into loans by labour brokers or other intermediaries with high interest rates on repayment. Migrant workers may then be required to pay back those fees before being paid their wages, in part or in full.

FLEX was recently contacted by a man from Ghana who had heard about the scheme and wished to know how he might join it. Clearly, people around the world are becoming aware of this work opportunity and will be looking for pathways to access it. Without proper resourcing, systems and safeguards in place, FLEX considers it highly likely that many low wage workers will be asked to pay recruitment fees by intermediaries which may lead to a state of debt bondage.

UK Inspectorates must be adequately resourced to ensure workers protected in new high-risk migration schemes

Labour standards enforcement needs to be a central part of post-Brexit migration policy reforms in order to prevent the exploitation of low wage migrant workers and the subsequent undercutting of wages and working conditions throughout the UK labour market.

FLEX research carried out in 2017 showed that the UK has just 0.4 labour inspectors per 10,000 workers despite the International Labour Organisation recommending a target of at least 1 per 10,000 workers to effectively enforce labour standards. Compared to European neighbours the UK has an enforcement budget of just £7.69 per worker whereas Ireland allocates double that amount and Norway almost three times the amount that the UK contributes to ensuring workers are protected across the labour market. As new categories of high-risk worker are introduced to the UK labour market it is essential that the Government ensures our labour inspectorates are up to the job of enforcing labour standards across all labour sectors.

FLEX Director, Caroline Robinson, says,

The UK is in danger of creating the conditions for human trafficking and forced labour to take place under these schemes. No worker in Britain should be paying extortionate recruitment fees for a job or working for no payment to pay back loans. Without anti-slavery objectives firmly embedded into the design of these schemes, post-Brexit Britain could see a sharp rise in modern slavery.

The government must provide funding for labour inspection to oversee these high-risk schemes and ensure workers can raise the alarm if they are subject to abuse. At the very minimum we must raise the level of labour inspectors in this country to meet the ILO target of 1 inspector per 10,000 workers. 

The government has repeatedly confirmed its commitment to ending modern slavery. If it fails to address the risks of these schemes, our Prime Minister’s aim to lead the world in anti-slavery efforts will be brought into disrepute.