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LEAG raise challenges faced by exploited workers in meeting with Anti-Slavery Commissioner

June 2, 2016

Last week the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) met with the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland OBE, to discuss UK responses to labour exploitation and modern slavery. As part of an ongoing dialogue between LEAG and the Commissioner, experts from various frontline and migrant organisations came together at the Commissioner’s office to address key issues which impact on vulnerable and exploited workers. Topics on the agenda included police responses to exploitation, low levels of reporting, and labour rights protection for undocumented workers.

Understanding the reasons why victims of exploitation are often reluctant to come forward is crucial to addressing the under-reporting of trafficking for labour exploitation. Katarzyna Zagrodniczek from the East European Advice Centre (EEAC) spoke about victims’ fear of being arrested as they often believe they share responsibility for their exploiter’s crimes. Barbara Drozdowicz, Director of the EEAC, raised concerns that those who do approach police are not being recognised as victims of modern slavery, as some are turned away from police stations when they attempt to report what has happened to them.

In light of the recent passage of the Immigration Act 2016, protection for undocumented workers was a key focus for those working with migrant communities. FLEX has raised concerns that the Act, which makes undocumented working an offence in the UK, may strengthen impunity for businesses exploiting undocumented workers who will be even more afraid to report abuse. Carolina Gottardo of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) warned that such impunity may create a two-tier system of those who can legally access justice and those who have no defence at all against exploitation. Claire Falconer, Legal Director at FLEX, stated that clear separation between immigration control and labour enforcement is now more crucial than ever in order to ensure victims are able to come forward.

The meeting highlighted some recent steps forward in building awareness of trafficking and modern slavery across law enforcement, business and the public. LEAG updated on the group’s recent work with the Metropolitan police towards improved identification of labour exploitation in London and across the UK. The Commissioner spoke about his work to engage top retail business networks on identifying and tackling exploitation in their supply chains. He also pointed to the Modern Slavery Garden and the #askthequestion campaign, as an example of public mobilisation on this issue. However, LEAG members noted that victim perspectives are often missing from statutory responses to labour exploitation, and that until the barriers victims face are understood and addressed, the majority of exploitation will continue to go undetected.

LEAG ensures that victims’ rights remain at the heart of FLEX’s individual and collaborative work, as we believe that policy and practice must be led by the needs of those it seeks to protect. LEAG’s ongoing work with the Commissioner’s office will focus on informing the approach of statutory agencies, businesses and others, by providing victim-centred information and insight into how and why exploitation takes place.