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The link between immigration policy, labour markets and exploitation in the UK

May 6, 2013

The UK government’s commitment to tackling trafficking for labour exploitation is being undermined by its immigration and labour market policies.

Last October, thirty Lithuanians were found working without pay, under threat of violence and in squalid accommodation at a poultry farm supplying eggs to major UK supermarkets. Whilst Lithuanians have the right to work in the UK, they were unaware of their labour rights and rendered dependent upon their exploiters. Last December, in a high profile case, the Connors family were convicted of coercing men to perform hard labour for little or no pay, preying on their homelessness and drug dependency. Most recently four Polish workers were found in Hampshire, forced to work in fear of violence, living in desperately poor conditions and unaware of their immigration status and labour rights. These are cases of trafficking for labour exploitation, a crime condemned globally and yet which thrives in the UK, feeding off victims’ vulnerability, dependency and marginalisation.

Last month, the UK Home Office held a conference aimed at tackling such labour exploitation in British industry, at which the Minister for Immigration Mark Harper MP advocated an approach to trafficking that favours partnership over penalties. He stated that to stop trafficking it falls to industry to recognise the negative impact of exploitation in supply chains on product branding. A Human Trafficking Charter was presented and industry representatives asked to subscribe. In the same month, wary of concerns about a possible influx of migrants to the UK, politicians on all sides clamoured to abate public concern with policy responses focussed on reducing rights and entitlements to migrants and imposing tighter immigration controls.

This anxiety about immigration largely concerns Romanian and Bulgarian workers who may migrate to fill posts in British industry once labour market access restrictions are lifted next year. This suggested threat has provoked severe responses from all three main political parties in the UK, focussing on controlling immigration and restricting benefits for European Economic Area (EEA) migrants. However these responses fail to recognise the potential impact of such measures on an already vulnerable migrant workforce. By centring on the status and entitlements of migrants, politicians have contributed to the stigmatisation, isolation and vulnerability that fosters labour exploitation and prevents such exploitation from being discovered.

The threat of being reported to immigration authorities is a key method used by  exploiters to control their victims and impose poor work and pay conditions. This practice has been reported in a wide range of sectors in the UK, including for example food and agriculture. Vulnerability to such threats is compounded by complex immigration regulations and stigmatising rhetoric that create confusion about labour rights and welfare entitlements. This plays directly into the hands of labour exploiters. In the UK, for example, EU accession workers are misled into thinking they are ‘illegal’ and therefore without rights, if they have not complied with registration or documentation requirements. This makes them both more likely to accept poor pay and working conditions, and less likely to report abuses through fear of being imprisoned or deported.

Negative attitudes towards migrants and restrictive welfare policies also reduce the likelihood that migrant worker exploitation will be identified and assistance provided.  When treated as a scourge or threat, migrants face stigmatisation and reticence to assert their rights. Nationals of countries targeted for deterrence and control, such as Romanian and Bulgarian migrants in the UK, are particularly vulnerable to such isolation and consequent abuse. With teachers, health workers and landlords encouraged to conduct checks on the immigration status of studentstenants and patients, exploited migrants inevitably withdraw from public spaces where they might be identified and assistance provided. Restrictions on migrants’ access to social housing will also increase the already high rates of migrant homelessness as well as vulnerability to exploitation. As the Connors case demonstrates, homelessness leaves individuals more susceptible to recruitment for labour in conditions over which they have little control and are less able to escape.

Whilst political leaders tend not to acknowledge the link between migrant vulnerability and labour exploitation, efforts to combat human trafficking are almost universally supported. The Human Trafficking Protocol adopted in 2003 has seen an unprecedented rate of ratification and is now one of the most widely ratified treaties in existence. Global ‘commitments to end the heinous crime of trafficking in persons’ led to the adoption, in 2010, of a new Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons. In July 2011 the UK Government reinforced its own ‘clear and unequivocal’ commitment in its updated Human Trafficking strategy. This gives rise to an incoherent policy juxtaposition where recognised victims of human trafficking are offered full support whereas potential victims are increasingly vilified.

For tough talk on human trafficking to translate into action, a comprehensive approach to immigration, labour market regulation and exploitation is required. Government commitments to combat human trafficking must be linked to policies that reduce rather than exacerbate the vulnerability of migrant workers. In the UK, labour deregulation and reductions in red tape are promised as a means of promoting and protecting British businesses whilst ignoring many workers who are falling into increasingly dangerous situations. The scope of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, established to prevent worker abuse in a select few industries, has been further reduced in the name of red tape reduction. At the same time, the voluntary, industry-led measures intended to fill the gap have been criticised by industry itself as falling far short of the mark.

The UK response to trafficking for labour exploitation will remain inadequate until the impact of immigration policy and rhetoric on migrant worker exploitation is acknowledged.  Further, without a regulatory body with the scope and powers to proactively uncover and tackle such exploitation the profits of this devastating crime will continue to outweigh the risks. A clear understanding of the connections between labour market demands, migrant worker vulnerability and human trafficking is critical to delivering coordinated and coherent policy and practice in this area. Without this, migrants will continue to be exploited, not only by gangmasters and opportunistic employers, but by those who would use them for material or political gain.

Originally on Open Democracy