Later in the afternoon, FLEX CEO Caroline Robinson and Research Officer Meri Ahlberg provided live evidence to the Public Bill Committee regarding the government’s proposed immigration plans. The Immigration Bill ends freedom of movement for EU citizens.
Caroline and Meri spoke about what this bill, and the government’s immigration white paper, present in terms of risks of labour exploitation for Britain’s future. They highlighted the key risks posed to workers by the government plans to introduce two short-term worker visas, including:
They made a number of suggestions regarding how these risks might be mitigated, such as ensuring workers have guaranteed minimum earnings, creating a multilingual helpline for workers on such schemes, licensing labour providers in high risk sectors and better resourcing UK labour inspectorates. They also recommended the government explore Bilateral Labour Agreements to ensure strong standards between sending countries and the UK and the reinstatement of the Agricultural Workers Board in England and Wales as a mechanism to protect standards and ensure worker involvement in standard-setting.
In response to a question by Stuart McDonald MP, they highlighted the problems with current national immigration policy, known as the ‘hostile environment’, which makes it illegal for undocumented people to work in the UK. “Immigration policy can serve to undermine the rights of workers,” noted Caroline Robinson, with the illegal working offence acting as a contributing factor to coercion and exploitation and creating a climate of fear around reporting labour abuse for fear of immigration repercussions.
Finally, the Minister for Immigration, Caroline Nokes, asked Caroline and Meri how the Seaonal Workers Pilot can work best, including in terms of protecting the rights of individuals coming into the UK under the scheme. In response, FLEX explained that it is vital for workers to be able to easily change employers, for wages and standards to be set via a tripartite mechanism including union representation, and that the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is resourced well enough to oversee labour providers under the scheme and license them effectively.
First, MP for Nottingham North, Alex Norris, led a debate on the Seasonal Workers Pilot due to launch soon. This pilot will bring workers from outside the European Economic Area to the UK to work on farms for a maximum of six years. There are considerable risks of labour abuse, modern slavery and human trafficking under this scheme if it is not designed and implemented in a way which protects workers adequately. These risks include wage underpayment, poverty due to lack of enough available hours, and debt bondage, a form of modern slavery, which occurs when someone is forced to work to pay of an inflated debt, such as a loan to cover their costs of travel to the UK or for recruitment fees. Previous temporary migration programmes like this new pilot have seen these abuses and exploitation occuring.
Mr Norris has previously gained a commitment from the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, to ensure anti-slavery objectives are embedded in the evaluation of the pilot. However, the government has so far provided no detail on plans to enact this.
In the debate, Mr Norris noted that attention must be paid to this scheme because of its modern slavery risks and stated that, as it stands, it is a recipe for exploitation. He wishes to see workers coming to the UK getting a fair deal and he asked the government to clarify how they would ensure this. “We must put ourselves in the place of the people entering this scheme,” he went on to say, noting the risk of debt bondage. He noted FLEX’s concerns on our under-resourced labour inspectorate, asking how migrant workers who may have low knowledge of their rights, of the English language and of how to seek help will be able to be identified if they experience abuse or exploitation.