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Secure reporting for all: the UK’s best strategy to tackle modern slavery

October 24, 2019

It’s vital that all workers can seek support if they experience harm at work. That’s why yesterday FLEX welcomed experts from Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany for a discussion on secure reporting for undocumented workers experiencing abuse and exploitation.

The event, hosted in partnership with the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), focused on strategies put in place by police, labour inspectorates, local governments and the courts to build safer reporting systems for workers experiencing unfair treatment at work.

Immigration enforcement interference with labour inspectorates stops workers for reporting abuse

Labour inspectorates core purpose is to protect workers’ rights and identify breaches in employment law. Yet today, many are given the additional burden of carrying out immigration related activities. It is well evidenced that when labour inspectorates are known to refer undocumented workers to immigration authorities, or conduct immigration control activities themselves, workers are reluctant to report workplace violations and to seek support when they are experiencing severe forms of exploitation.

In the UK, workers are further discouraged from reporting employment rights violations due to “hostile environment” policies that criminalise the act of working without required documentation and make them liable to fines, imprisonment and deportation. These policies push undocumented workers into precarious jobs in the informal economy where they deal with a range of abuses, such as wage theft, pay below the minimum wage, excessively long working hours, verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment.

This was the case of Renata, an undocumented woman interviewed by FLEX, who described multiple instances of abuse while working in cleaning, hospitality and domestic work, some of which amounted to exploitation. At one point she was made to work for 14 hours in one day and was only paid £2.70/hour, well below the national minimum wage of £8.21. When asked why she did not report her employers she said: “if you are illegal [sic] here, we have no rights to complain or report”.

Renata’s view illustrates that of many other undocumented workers who describe feeling unable to complain because of the perceived, and actual, strong relationship between labour inspectorates and the Home Office’s immigration enforcement function.

Developing trust, preventing exploitation: lessons from abroad

Recognising the impact of the distrust undocumented migrants have towards government agencies when they are seen to collaborate with immigration authorities, some countries have adopted strategies to reduce the interference of immigration control activities on the protection of workers’ rights.

In Belgium, all workers can report employment rights violations without fear of immigration consequences. For instance, if a worker reports a case of wage theft to labour inspectors, they will support them to recover their pay without informing authorities of the worker’s immigration status. This system, which has been used by at least 300 undocumented workers during the past decade, is seen to have increased trust between workers and inspectors and has allowed the latter to better deliver on their duty to identify employers who are not complying with labour law.

Since 2006, the Amsterdam police has been strengthening an important mechanism to build trust with undocumented migrant communities. Police officers recognised that, in order to do their jobs effectively, they needed to create a secure environment for communities to report crimes. For this reason, police officers assure undocumented people that their personal information will be safe in their hands. This means that if an undocumented person reports a crime, their names, addresses, phone numbers and other personal information are not shared with immigration authorities which ensures no immigration action is taken against them.

Safe in their hands? Current police guidance in the UK

Last December, it looked like the UK National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) had learned from the successful system adopted in Amsterdam when they issued guidance stating that anyone reporting a crime in the UK would be treated first, and foremost, as a victim. The guidance also clarified that police officers should not take immigration enforcement action themselves. These positive commitments are in line with secure reporting systems that help create a trusting relationship between enforcement agencies and victims. However, this guidance proved to be inefficient because it still encourages police officers to make immigration enforcement aware of the victim’s immigration status, which will most likely lead to immigration action being taken against them. So while the UK police seems to be taking steps on the right direction, it still needs to address the way that Home Office immigration enforcement interferes with its primary responsibility to help victims of crime.

Much like the Amsterdam police, local governments in Germany have developed a secure reporting system by establishing cooperation agreements between police, frontline services and other relevant bodies to allow migrants to report stolen wages, human trafficking and forced labour without fear of immigration-related repercussions.

Speakers also highlighted that employment rights should be applicable to, and enforceable for, all workers through a range of systems, including mediation, arbitration and through the courts. Unlike the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium guarantee that employment contracts and rights are enforceable to all workers, irrespective of immigration status, which also helps to increase workers’ trust in the justice system.

Secure reporting as a tool to tackle modern slavery offences

Much work has been done in the UK to tackle modern slavery offences following the development of the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015. Yet, there is still a reluctance to invest in strategies that can prevent these severe forms of exploitation from happening in the first place.

FLEX has long advocated for the enforcement of employment rights as a way to address labour abuses and prevent them from turning into cases of exploitation. Research by the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG), coordinated by FLEX, has identified a strong causal link between labour abuses and labour exploitation within certain UK labour sectors. Breaches of labour law, such as non-payment of minimum wage, holiday pay and unfair dismissal were found to be the most prevalent. Indeed, the former Director of Labour Market Enforcement (DLME), Sir David Metcalf, supported this view, stating that:

“I see modern slavery as the extreme end of a continuum of non-compliant behaviour. I am keen to ensure that the links between modern slavery and other forms of labour market exploitation (both in terms of the individuals involved and the conditions that enable it to happen) are recognised so that the whole spectrum of behaviour can be tackled in a coherent and effective manner.”

Despite this, little has been done to address these issues or to prevent them from worsening.

With labour inspectorates and police focused on the more extreme cases of labour exploitation, and often burdened by needing to help the Home Office identify people in breach of the “illegal working offence”, workers are being left without proper support to recover unpaid wages, challenge excessive working hours or unfair dismissal. On top of this, undocumented workers are fearful that reporting these abuses will lead to their detention and removal, so many choose to stay in exploitative employment, or seek another job where they are likely to experience similar problems.

Developments in Europe bring hope that police, labour inspectorates, local government and the courts are starting to realise the importance of encouraging all workers to report issues at work, which can only be achieved when workers trust that their personal information is safe in the hands of labour inspectors. The establishment and enforcement of secure reporting systems help raise working conditions for all, as labour inspectorates receive better intelligence to identify employers in breach of labour law and prevent the same issues from happening to other workers, or indeed, from turning into cases of severe exploitation. To continue improving its response to tackling modern slavery, the UK should look to the example of these other European countries and adopt secure reporting mechanisms for all workers.

With thanks to PICUM for supporting this discussion forum and the attending organisations FAIRWORK Belgium, Stichting LOS, Migrants Rights Centre Ireland, FairWork and the Service Centre against Labour Exploitation, Forced Labour and Human Trafficking for sharing their expertise.

Illustration by Kathy MacLeod for FLEX.