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LEAG 5 Years: Collaboration to tackle labour exploitation in the UK

September 8, 2021

This month the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) celebrates its five-year anniversary. To commemorate, members have prepared a four-part blog series in which they will share their experiences working with and for those affected by labour exploitation, and their views on what is still needed to address and prevent it.

To open the series, LEAG’s Coordinator Letícia Ishibashi reflects on the coalition’s work and achievements during the past five years and plans moving forward.

Since 2015, the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group has acted as a platform to promote discussion, information-sharing and collaboration among organisations working directly with people at risk or with experience of labour exploitation. Its eleven members work together to ensure policy responses are grounded on the interests, needs and experiences of those affected by labour exploitation; and that all workers and victims have are able to enforce their rights.

The coalition was established by FLEX to strengthen collaboration among organisations that were not traditionally involved in anti-trafficking or labour exploitation policy influencing, but who held valuable expertise due to their direct work with those affected by it. Among those were frontline and ‘by and for’ organisations focused on securing and promoting the rights of women, migrants, workers and people facing homelessness as well as victim support services, such as founding members Latin American Women’s Rights Service, East European Resource Centre, Ashiana Sheffield and the British Red Cross.

“From our experience supporting survivors of human trafficking and forced labour, we know the importance of collaborating and sharing expertise to improve responses to exploitation. British Red Cross has been a member of LEAG since the group was established, and we continue to see the real value in bringing together expert organisations to improve support for survivors.”

Kathryn Baldacchino, British Red Cross

This diversity became one of LEAG’s greatest assets and a guiding principle as the coalition continues to grow its membership and extend its collaboration to other communities.

“Joining LEAG has been an excellent chance to meet like-minded organisations involved in the fight against precarious work, and to review together how we can mobilise our expertise to make meaningful policy contributions. Taking a lead role in mapping the policy space and forging relationships, FLEX have made it so much easier for charities like ours to utilise their expertise, share resources, and hone their voice as policy influencers.”

Olivia Vicol, Work Rights Centre

“For over 25 years the Kanlungan Filipino Consortium has fought for the rights of migrants in our community who work in low paid, low status, highly exploitative jobs. LEAG has enabled us to add our voice to those of other communities in a common fight against worker exploitation.”

Susan Cueva, Kanlungan

Bringing together organisations specialised in different issues allows LEAG to develop a wider understanding of the drivers of labour exploitation, barriers to support and justice, and helps develop evidence-based solutions to address them. This, in turn, provides stakeholders with access to valuable data from the frontline which can be used to shape more effective policies.

Broadening the debate on labour exploitation

“I see modern slavery as the extreme end of a continuum of non-compliant behaviour. I am keen to ensure that the links between modern slavery and other forms of labour market exploitation (both in terms of the individuals involved and the conditions that enable it to happen) are recognised so that the whole spectrum of behaviour can be tackled in a coherent and effective manner.”

Sir David Metcalf CBE, former UK Director of Labour Market Enforcement

LEAG’s work has been vital in strengthening decision-makers’ understanding of the link between labour abuses and exploitation.

The coalition’s first position paper published in 2016 discussed how labour violations such as non-payment of minimum wage, excessive charges for accommodation and equipment, along with isolation, extensive subcontracting and poverty were contributing to workers’ vulnerability to exploitation. LEAG’s advocacy has been effective in ensuring labour rights form part of the UK’s response to labour exploitation, with the UK’s first Director of Labour Market Enforcement confirming his support to this approach and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner stating she is “convinced that lower levels of abuse can develop into exploitation”.

Shortly after the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, LEAG published a paper that uncovered how confusion and misinformation were making it harder for European workers to exercise their rights, while making it easier for abusive employers to take advantage of them by imposing longer hours, excessive workload and refusing to pay them. Members have kept the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the Greater London Authority regularly informed about developments on the frontline while also helping to shape the UK’s Brexit plans by engaging with the Home Office’s Vulnerability Advisory Group.

Challenging policies that create and exacerbate risk of labour exploitation

“The expertise of the group means we have been able to tackle a wide range of issues ranging from harmful data sharing practices to hostile environment policies. This work has increased our capacity and facilitated important dialogue with a wider group of relevant stakeholders to try to make positive changes for workers.”

Avril Sharp, Kalayaan

LEAG has also been instrumental in evidencing how the UK’s prioritisation of immigration enforcement is hurting its responses to tackle modern slavery.

Among those is the high number of trafficking victims being held in immigration detention. Building on member Bail for Immigration Detainees’ expertise on this system, LEAG collaborated to identify the main issues preventing victims from being identified and supported before and after detention. We found strong evidence that immigration offences were being prioritised over experiences of exploitation, and that this was leading to long-term and severe consequences to their trafficking cases, mental and physical health.

To challenge this practice, LEAG established a Taskforce of thirteen anti-trafficking, anti-detention, migrants’ rights and legal representatives. Taskforce members have discussed strategies to address this issue with the Home Affairs Select Committee and maintain the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner updated on the challenges to identification and support of victims in detention. Earlier this year, members and partners also ensured parliament had the opportunity to scrutinise a harmful new policy that makes it easier for the Home Office to detain trafficking victims and for longer periods of time.

LEAG has also been advocating for labour inspectorates and police to introduce secure reporting systems to allow all workers and victims to report abuse and exploitation. LEAG’s recent report identified the ways migrants’ personal information becomes available to immigration enforcement after coming to contact with these agencies. It also shows how this practice is leading migrants to endure abuse and exploitation for long periods since they fear that seeking help will put them at risk of arrest, detention and deportation.

Building on this expertise, LEAG members have been invited to inform the Home Office’s review of the police and immigration enforcement’s data-sharing practices, which is currently underway. This review follows recent findings that this practice is causing significant harm to public interest and stops victims from seeking help.

LEAG’s evidence-based advocacy also led the government to recognise the need to build trust between migrant workers and labour inspectorates, and the Mayor of London to call for secure reporting “to protect those victims who may have uncertain immigration status”, stating that the Metropolitan police “is working to encourage police officers to prioritise the individual as a victim”.

Putting workers’ voices and experiences at centre

As LEAG celebrates its five-year anniversary, members are getting ready to deliver an exciting new collaborative research project through which we will work with workers and survivors to challenge stereotypes around victimhood and labour exploitation, supporting them to share their experiences and working together to identify opportunities for interventions that can prevent labour abuses from escalating into exploitation.

This builds on work such as  partnering with the Mayor of London to produce an informative video about where workers can report labour abuse and exploitation, which is available in eleven languages. Such work is made possible by the coalition’s diversity, frontline expertise and relationship of trust with the communities they work with.

As we look ahead, LEAG is committed to continuing ensuring workers’ and victims’ needs, interests and experiences help inform and guide the UK’s responses to prevent and address labour exploitation.

Read the other blogs in the series in which a survivor reflects on their journey to recoveryexploring the intersection between homelessness and labour exploitation, and highlighting the benefits of working in partnership.