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Modern slavery: We need more than ‘first aid’ for victims – outright prevention should be the goal

July 21, 2014

As the response to recent strike action on the part of public sector workers shows, it is not always easy to convince people of the need to protect the rights of all workers, British or migrant. It is particularly hard in the face of high-unemployment and a struggling economy when the argument is put that migrant workers are filling roles British workers could take.

Yet, when it comes to debates about modern slavery, there is widespread sympathy and support for the victims, the majority of whom are migrant workers exploited for their labour. This paradox arises, simply put, because victims are viewed as deserving protections whereas potential victims are not. Our job is to make the argument that protections are most useful before someone becomes a victim and therefore should be applied to all workers regardless of migrant status.

In debate on this question, people often suggest that greater labour protections would act as a pull factor towards the UK. Yet, the recent Migration Advisory Committee report on low skilled migration suggests that in fact the opposite is true – that the absence of labour protections creates the demand for migrant workers, ergo labour protections reduce that demand.

But it is not just public opinion that is contradictory: migrant workers also face a confusing policy landscape. On the one hand there are increasing checks on immigration status at work and home provided for in the new Immigration Act and reduced labour protections as a result of the Government’s ‘red tape challenge’; then on the other hand there is Theresa May’s high-profile campaign against ‘modern day slavery’.

Only last month the UK government, in adopting a new Protocol to the international Forced Labour Convention, recognised that greater labour protections serve to prevent acts of modern slavery from taking place. This supports the case made by Focus on Labour Exploitation in its working paper on Preventing Trafficking for Labour Exploitation, that the UK needs a much stronger labour inspection system to prevent people from being exploited for their labour. We know that where gaps in the enforcement of labour protections exist, unscrupulous employers will take advantage of such gaps and exploitation will snowball from minor infringements of employment law to severe exploitation that constitutes modern slavery.

The Modern Slavery Bill offers an opportunity to improve labour protections for vulnerable workers as a means of preventing acts of severe exploitation. The debate around the Bill should focus on why, in modern Britain, workers are still being exploited for their labour in the restaurants we visit, hotels we stay in and on the construction sites all around us.

Yet, so far the Home Secretary has resisted calls for an expanded Gangmasters Licensing Authority in this Bill that could serve as an effective labour inspectorate, particularly in high-risk sectors where exploitation is rife. Instead the GLA has been moved in to the Home Office, placing its role to protect all workers regardless of status in great jeopardy.

As politicians of all parties declare their support for ending slavery in the UK, there is a unique opportunity to put in place measures that would ensure no worker ends up in exploitation. But this opportunity will be missed if our leaders continue to talk tough on modern slavery without recognising that labour protections for all workers are the first line of defence in this fight.

Originally at Migrant Rights Network, Migration Pulse