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Hostile environment undermines UK Government’s modern slavery agenda

May 1, 2018

The Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies are not only inhumane, they are undermining the UK’s efforts to end modern slavery.

Plans to create a hostile environment for undocumented migrants, advanced by the former Home Secretary during the passage of the Immigration Act 2014, have recently come under intense media scrutiny. From the Windrush generation to homeless EU nationals, people have suffered wrongful detention and deportation, evictions, loss of jobs, denial of healthcare, and unnecessary fear and uncertainty, casting significant doubts on the Home Office’s ability to deliver immigration policy.

For many years, FLEX has been warning that such measures not only have an impact on the rights of all migrants in the UK but, alarmingly, undermine the UK’s efforts to lead the fight against modern slavery. Through the Modern Slavery Act 2015 the UK Government made a commitment to tackle all forms of modern slavery, including trafficking for labour exploitation and forced labour. Yet, the hostile environment, by limiting the ability of those at risk of exploitation to engage with public services, has created the conditions in which labour exploitation can thrive. By denying people who are already vulnerable access to legitimate work, housing, and support, hostile environment policies can push them into even more precarious situations and increase risk of exploitation.

What is the hostile environment?

The ‘hostile environment’ is a series of measures aimed at making it so difficult to live in the UK without proper documentation that those who are undocumented will leave, and those seeking to come without permission will be deterred from doing so.

The policies are designed to deny undocumented migrants access to everything from healthcare to education, housing, work, benefits, drivers’ licences and bank accounts. Employers, landlords, the NHS, banks, and other service providers are required to carry out immigration checks and share personal information with immigration enforcement. Failure to do so can result in fines or criminal prosecution. Other hostile environment measures include ‘deport first, appeal later’, policies to make immigration applications more complex, and the infamous ‘go home’ vans.

How does it undermine efforts to tackle modern slavery?

Firstly, the Immigration Act 2016 criminalised undocumented work through the ‘offence of illegal working’. Rather than preventing undocumented migrants from working, this measure pushes people into informal jobs where they are less protected against abusive employment practices. It also increases employers’ power over workers: fear of criminalization is one of the primary tools used by traffickers to control exploited workers.

Employing undocumented workers is also a crime, punishable with a fine of up to £20,000 per worker. However, a penalty reduction framework can remove the fine completely if employers themselves report workers to the authorities and cooperate with investigations. This creates a situation where employers can maximise profits by exploiting undocumented workers and then report them for deportation if they dare to demand decent labour conditions. Recent parliamentary answers also show that over 30% of the “civil penalty notices” issued since 2008 have not been paid in full, indicating that employers found guilty are too often able to evade sanctions.

Secondly, a recent Home Office Select Committee report has highlighted how the hostile environment is preventing people from reporting crimes or seeking medical help due to fear of having their details shared with the Home Office. This is clearly counterproductive for the Government’s efforts to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery, as people that fear being criminalised themselves are unlikely to report the crimes to which they are being subjected.

Thirdly, though hostile environment policies are targeted at undocumented workers, they create risk for all migrants, including documented workers. Research by FLEX and the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group has shown that hostile environment measures make migrant workers feel they have no rights, and that they will be penalized for speaking up. These are the conditions in which exploitation thrives.

The uncertainty created by Brexit is only compounding these fears: even though the official status of EU nationals has not yet changed, EU workers are already assuming they have fewer rights. As one research participant explained to FLEX:

“A lot of people never knew their employment rights. Now they’re getting all these narratives that they don’t have rights. It’s easy to go from not knowing to being certain that it’s ok to be pushed around, to be overworked, to be forced to work extra hours, to not get paid.”

Uncertainty is also leading to outright discrimination, with some landlords and employers refusing to engage with any foreign nationals for fear of criminal sanctions if they make a mistake in applying hostile environment rules.

Implementing policies that actively harm migrants and put them at risk of exploitation is worrying in and of itself, but especially so when the government has not yet made any assessment of their effectiveness.

What should be done?

At a minimum, a separation should be in place between immigration enforcement and official bodies tasked with providing essential services and protections, including labour inspectorates. Migrant workers must feel safe to report labour abuse and exploitation and to trust labour inspectorates so that they do share vital information with them.

The Parliamentary Health Select Committee has asked the NHS to withdraw immediately from a memorandum of Understanding with the Home Office that allows for the sharing of patients’ addresses for immigration enforcement purposes, while it carries out a review of the process. A similar review of the impact of immigration enforcement policies on the Government’s efforts to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery is urgently needed.

Labour inspectorates that share information or operations with immigration enforcement are hampered in their efforts to identify cases of modern slavery. Labour inspectors that are thought to be concerned with the legal status of workers are prevented from gaining the trust of workers that is essential to uncovering exploitation. Identification of victims of trafficking takes trust, support and the availability and offer of a positive alternative. Immigration control breaks trust, is not victim centred, and risks returning victims to countries where they will be re-trafficked.