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Protecting labour standards: the prevention of trafficking for labour exploitation in the UK

July 29, 2016

Tomorrow is ‘World Day Against Trafficking in Persons’, an international day dedicated to “raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights.”

The rights of trafficked persons have never been more topical. In the last 12 months the UK enacted the Modern Slavery Act (2015), and the Immigration Act (2016), and FLEX was active in negotiating for the inclusion of the rights of trafficked persons in both Acts. Some elements of the Modern Slavery Act (2015) represent important steps forward, such as the protection of victims from prosecution for criminal acts they are forced to commit, and the establishment of Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, which provides important opportunities for monitoring the government’s progress and giving voice to a wide range of stakeholders. The more recent Immigration Act (2016) presents both significant opportunities and significant challenges in the fight to end labour exploitation. However there is still a long way to go in the UK’s response to human trafficking, particularly in the area of prevention, one of the ‘Three Ps’ of a model trafficking response.

Labour inspection and labour rights protection are key to prevention

FLEX has long argued that enforcement of labour standards is a central principle in an effective anti-trafficking response. The monitoring and enforcement of basic labour rights across the labour market ensures that employment standards are upheld, infringements are properly penalised, and the demand for cheap and exploitative labour is diminished. While most anti-trafficking responses are focused on the ‘high-end’ of organized criminal exploitation, the reality is that exploitation occurs throughout the formal and informal economy and occurs on a spectrum that links minor labour rights abuses with severe labour exploitation.

For this reason, labour inspection and enforcement that identifies and investigates early abuses is key to preventing labour exploitation or forced labour. As the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has stated, “labour inspectors in particular are well placed to provide early warnings” of exploitation. Identifying abuses such as poor working conditions, systemic underpayment of wages, and excessive wage deductions means that labour inspectors are able to act early to remedy abuses before they deteriorate into more severe labour exploitation.

The role of labour inspection and enforcement in ending human trafficking and forced labour has recently been recognised and strengthened through the adoption of the ILO’s Forced Labour Protocol, to which the UK was one of the first signatories. Article 2 of the Protocol sets out the measures for prevention of forced labour, which crucially includes ensuring that labour laws are enforced and that they cover all workers in all sectors of the economy (i.e. including migrant workers) and strengthening labour inspection services. Labour inspection and enforcement are fundamental to any effective anti-trafficking response, but are too often undermined by under-resourcing and the lack of a clear separation between labour inspection and immigration enforcement.

Labour rights and labour inspection in the UK trafficking response

In the UK law and policy context, there has been a shift in recent years towards acknowledging the role of labour protection and labour inspection as part of the ‘modern slavery’ response. FLEX’s advocacy during the Modern Slavery Bill was strongly focussed on the need for prevention through strengthened labour inspection, resulting in the government undertaking in section 55 to conduct a review of the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA).

This review was conducted during the passage of the Immigration Bill, during which FLEX led advocacy on Part 1 of the Bill dealing with labour exploitation, placing a strong emphasis on labour market enforcement and prioritizing the needs of vulnerable and exploited workers. The Immigration Bill was subsequently amended to provide for a significant expansion of the GLA’s remit and powers. This expansion will allow inspectors to investigate certain labour abuses in any labour sector, providing an important source of protection for exploited workers. However, FLEX has cautioned that such expansion should not diminish the existing routine monitoring and inspection functions of the Authority.

The Immigration Act also introduced a new Director of Labour Market Enforcement, who will oversee and provide strategic direction to UK labour inspection and enforcement agencies. Like the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, this role provides opportunities for building knowledge and for broad stakeholder engagement in addressing labour exploitation, but must prioritise the protection of workers and workers’ rights, and avoid involvement in immigration enforcement, to be effective.

Yet while on the one hand recognizing the need to enforce labour standards and protect vulnerable workers, the UK government has on the other hand, and in the very same Act, provided traffickers with the ideal tool for exploiting migrant workers.  The new Act criminalises ‘illegal working’, making it an offence punishable with imprisonment to work without immigration status.  Traffickers frequently use the threat of deportation, removal and reporting to immigration officials in order to abuse and exploit workers.1 FLEX strongly believes that the criminalization of undocumented workers will give rise to further exploitation by effectively handing power back to unscrupulous employers and preventing victims from reporting severe labour exploitation.

Going Forward

Between now and the next World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in 2017 there will be significant changes in the UK’s response to human trafficking and forced labour, that reflect a growing understanding of the role of labour standards in the prevention of severe exploitation. The GLA will be significantly expanded and become the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA). The new Director of Labour Market enforcement will be appointed and will develop their first ‘Labour Market Enforcement Strategy’. These developments present both opportunities and risks, as the protection of labour standards competes with alternative priorities concerning immigration enforcement and market de-regulation. FLEX will therefore continue to call for the rights of vulnerable workers to be prioritised and protected to prevent human trafficking in the year to come.