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Mending the net: building effective social protections to prevent modern slavery

October 15, 2020

If I could change anything about my job, it would be the contribution to social security, to have the right to sick pay that covers the basic expenses at least.

Carla, Colombian cleaner*

Social protections are a key instrument for building in resilience to labour exploitation, including modern slavery and trafficking. They are state interventions aimed at reducing social and economic risk and vulnerability, and alleviating extreme poverty and deprivation. As such, they act as a support net that reduces the degree of vulnerability of individuals at risk of trafficking and exploitation. This includes vulnerability caused by the absence of or a substantial reduction to income from work as a result of various contingencies such as sickness, disability and workplace injuries.

Social protection provides safety nets of two kinds: poverty alleviation measures which help people get out of poverty and social insurance programmes or other labour market interventions that allow people to deal with labour market risk. To understand how devastating lack of social protection can be, a 2015 study found that destitution, resulting  from  people having no right  to  work  or  access  government  support  or  benefits, was  the  primary driver into exploitative work  for irregular migrants and refused asylum seekers in the UK.

If we really want to end ‘modern slavery’, and if we are serious about protecting people from all forms of exploitation, then we should ensure that there is a support system available that allows those most at risk to refuse abusive and exploitative employment.

If this wasn’t evident to everyone before, it is definitely clear now. The Coronavirus pandemic has shown on a mass scale how big the gaps in our social protection system are, making ordinary life risky for large groups of workers. This is why, for Anti-Slavery Day, we are highlighting the need for effective social protections as a prerequisite for preventing various grades of labour abuse and exploitation, including modern slavery offences.

Why are social protections key to preventing modern slavery?

The common imaginary of human trafficking and modern slavery te­­nds to see it as a crime caused by individuals who coerce people into situations of exploitation. This vision of individualised criminal coercion, if it is the only one we’re shown, can mask the underlying factors that make people susceptible to exploitation and divert us from seeking more sustainable measures for preventing modern slavery.

There are concrete steps policymakers can take to reduce people’s vulnerability to labour abuse and exploitation, and providing a social safety net that allows people to say no to and escape from exploitative work is one of them. If countries design social protection systems that reduce the economic pressure on the most vulnerable, those at-risk become more resilient to exploitative work.

What does this mean for the UK?

After a decade of austerity measures and as we start to face the economic and social impacts of an ongoing global pandemic, the need to address the gaps in the UK’s system is clear. Acknowledging that there are numerous issues to address and multiple barriers preventing people from accessing state support, this blog focuses on two key elements, which have been especially highlighted by the current pandemic: access to adequate sick pay and access to support in case of sudden loss of income.

As highlighted in this briefing, Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is a key and urgent example to address. Since the pandemic outbreak, a significant number of workers either faced barriers to accessing it – because of being falsely classed as self-employed or not meeting the lower earnings limit of £120/week – or were eligible but could not live off it, as SSP is a mere £95.85 a week. Workers were then forced to choose between going to work despite being ill or accepting a significant loss of income by self-isolating, putting them at risk of destitution.

Universal Credit has also shown its limits during the pandemic. Universal Credit is a key protective measure for people who had lost their income and could not rely on the government’s Covid support schemes. However, many people were unable to access Universal Credit, for reasons including the conditions attached to their immigration status, being self-employed, or because they could not prove habitual residence, as was the case for many EU citizens who had been granted pre-settled status and had difficulties proving their right to reside.

As the below case study shows, the limitations of and barriers to accessing SSP and Universal Credit are leaving people at risk of destitution and vulnerable to exploitation .

Marie, is a Latin American woman working as a cleaner in London. She has a chronic generative illness. When she contacted Covid-19 and was unable to work, her employer did not need to pay her Statutory Sick Pay as she only worked four hours per week for them, earning less that the lower earnings limit of £120 per week. Marie said she asked for sick pay from her employer on compassionate grounds, but the company refused. Language barriers have made it difficult for her to navigate applying for alternative support from the state, including Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments. She needs somebody to help her as she has lived on her own ever since she arrived in the UK. Lack of community ties, loss of income and lack of social protection are vulnerability factors that put Marie at high-risk of exploitation.

So, what needs to happen for this to improve?

Provide Universal Basic Income. It would give people the freedom to walk away from abusive jobs. Many jobs are to some degree abusive, even those in “better”, other sectors.

–       Hannah, German hospitality worker

Simply put there is a need for a better social protection. The UK government has partially recognised this need by temporarily extending SSP – from the fourth to the first day of sickness for those with Covid-19 – and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and by raising the standard Universal Credit allowance from £317.82 to £409.89 per month during the pandemic. However, more needs to be done. Firstly, it is fundamentally important that these measures are extended beyond the pandemic. In addition, a number of measures could help strengthen our safety nets:

  • Expand SSP, so that it’s available to all, including the self-employed and people earning less than £120 a week, and increase it to cover the real cost of living.
  • Raise the basic level of universal credit and legacy benefits.
  • End the five-week wait for first payment of universal credit by converting emergency payment loans to grants.
  • Scrap the No Recourse to Public Funds visa condition that denies individuals access to social protections.

This is a starting point. Welfare is a social contract between the state and individuals. At the moment it is a precarious and temporary contract. Only by strengthening it we can prevent groups facing vulnerabilities from falling through the cracks.

* All names have been changed to protect people’s identities.

With thanks to Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) for the case study. FLEX is currently partnering with IWGB and United voices of the World (UVW) to research access to social protection and labour rights among low-paid workers in sectors impacted by Covid-19. If you are interested in the project and would like to know more about it, please get in touch at: [email protected].