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LEAG 5 Years: Preventing labour exploitation of people facing homelessness

September 20, 2021

Photo: Glass Door

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.

This week, Anna Yassin, Migrant Project Manager at Glass Door Homeless Charity reflects on the intersection between homelessness and labour exploitation, and shares their work to support modern slavery survivors and prevent exploitation among the homeless population in London.

Based in London, Glass Door coordinates the UK’s largest network of open-access services for people affected by homelessness. In an ordinary year, we provide a safe place to sleep for 175 people every night in our winter shelters. Our ability to assist is based on capacity not on eligibility criteria or local connection. We welcome people as guests, rather than as ‘clients’ or ‘service users’. We offer respect and the idea that all people have dignity and value.

As a result of our open access policy, we meet people in particularly desperate situations, having been either rejected from services on grounds of eligibility, or too frightened and/or dejected by the requirements imposed to access the support they need. Among those are people who need a place to stay after leaving exploitation and/or who are waiting to be accommodated via the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s system to support people who have experienced modern slavery.

Issues faced by homeless survivors of modern slavery

Insecure housing is a key issue for survivors of modern slavery, as highlighted in a recently published report by Crisis. The research documented the experience of over 330 people from across the UK affected by homelessness and modern slavery over the past two years. Labour exploitation was identified as the second most common type of exploitation after sexual exploitation overall; however, it was the most prevalent type of exploitation among men facing homelessness. It found that less than half (45%) of homeless survivors of modern slavery chose to enter the NRM, and that limited access to accommodation and legal advice is preventing survivors from seeking redress. It concluded that current government support for survivors is inadequate, leaving people trapped in homelessness and exposed to a risk of further exploitation.

These findings mirror what we see at Glass Door. Last winter, Glass Door caseworkers supported a number of guests escaping conditions of modern slavery. In one case, staff prevented entry into the hostel by someone looking for a guest who had left exploitation. The guest was kept safe and later accommodated via the NRM. Unfortunately, accommodation support is not guaranteed for survivors waiting for a reasonable grounds decision. This means those facing homelessness are often left vulnerable to re-exploitation unless they are able to find safe accommodation and support from organisations like ours.

Preventing labour exploitation among people experiencing homelessness

We also act to prevent labour exploitation, using the opportunity to disseminate information and raise guests’ awareness of modern slavery. For example, a male guest who had moved out to work on a construction site returned to the hostel because there had been an attempt to take his documents. We had previously informed him about signs of labour exploitation. On another case, a female guest was offered what sounded like an abusive job as a housekeeper. Our caseworker used this opportunity to provide her with information about labour exploitation in her native language, which led the guest to seek another job, this time with good conditions.

Glass Door also runs an Employability Project, which provides our guests with valuable information about employment rights and identifying exploitative work. In addition, our full-time Employment Advisor, based at partnering drop-in centres, supports people to find safe employment and sustainable routes off the street.

Challenges ahead: risk of exploitation of migrant rough sleepers

Despite our best efforts to support those facing homelessness to exit and steer clear from exploitative jobs, inadequate government policies and the ‘hostile environment’ rhetoric continue to undermine responses to address modern slavery.

In 2017, a successful legal challenge overturned a Home Office policy that deemed ‘rough sleeping’ an abuse of rights under the European Union’s Free Movement Directive; in practice this policy had resulted in the arrest, detention and removal of vulnerable, homeless Europeans. The High Court judged the policy to be unlawful and discriminatory. The damage however was done. The policy resulted in the disengagement of street homeless populations with homelessness services and an enduring distrust of the Home Office among homelessness organisations.

Further, it set a precedent. With Brexit and the end of free movement, the criminalisation of the migrant homeless population continues. Last year, the Home Office introduced changes to its immigration rules that stipulate a person’s leave can be cancelled or denied if they are found sleeping rough. These multipronged attacks by the Government end up disproportionately discriminating against the most vulnerable and perpetuate a culture of fear against the statutory services that are there to provide protection.

By joining LEAG, Glass Door is giving a platform to the marginalised and disenfranchised populations we work with. Through discussion, information-sharing and collaboration with LEAG members who all work directly with people who have experienced or are at risk of labour exploitation in the UK, we can collaboratively advocate for justice and challenge policies and practices that are putting people at risk of labour exploitation.

Read the previous blog of this series here.