Skip to content
Focus on

The NRM: No substitute for workers’ rights

March 27, 2024
Avatar photo

Gina Kass

Training Officer

Earlier this month, FLEX released a report on the “continuum of exploitation” which highlights the importance of a preventative approach to combat labour exploitation. Labour abuses can build up and escalate, leading to the extreme end of the continuum: modern slavery, an area that the UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is meant to address. The National Referral Mechanism is the UK’s official system for formally identifying someone as a survivor of modern slavery. It is also the gateway to government funded support. This can include short term accommodation, case work support and access to legal aid. 

NRM referrals are on the rise, but the usefulness of an NRM referral to people who have been exploited is diminishing. While the NRM has long faced criticism as not being centred on the best interests of victims, it has also steadily become more cumbersome and difficult to navigate. It suffers from severe capacity issues, increasingly restrictive policy changes, limited entitlements, and the impact of wider legislative change, all while lacking scope for assisting people facing severe exploitation which doesn’t amount to modern slavery. These shortfalls amount to a system which fails to protect people from falling into exploitation, and is no substitute for stronger worker protections, particularly for people who lack access to legal recourse due to immigration or employment status. 

An overburdened system

The NRM is designed so that only designated first responder organisations can refer a case. These organisations include statutory agencies such as the police and local authorities, all of whom are required by law to report all suspected cases of modern slavery (or anonymously via a “Duty to Notify” if no consent is given). Additionally, some NGOs are authorised to act as first responders, many of whom have a specialty, such as cases of children experiencing modern slavery (Barnardo’s), or cases of domestic workers (Kalayaan). 

While the first responder system creates a streamlined approach for referrals to the NRM, it also creates a gatekeeping mechanism that struggles with capacity issues. Kalayaan recently published a report illustrating the dangerous effect this has on at-risk people seeking protection, who face a game of ping-pong between different first responders who advise applicants to seek elsewhere for support. Non-statutory first responders with limited capacity may instead direct people to a statutory first responder such as the police, and this is not always a viable option for marginalised groups that may have a fear of approaching law enforcement. Additionally, there is no guarantee that a police officer or local authority employee will have specialised knowledge of the NRM if approached. 

This trend is concerning for a number of reasons. First, it places an additional burden on people seeking support, as they have to self-advocate persistently and navigate difficult language barriers and share highly sensitive information with several people or groups. All this during a time when they might be destitute, traumatised, scared or in an ongoing situation of exploitation. Second, NGOs meant to offer more specialised, trauma-informed services, with a more in-depth understanding of the NRM, are losing the ability to address need, and rerouting people to agencies like the police, who may be aware of the NRM but have a less specialised and trauma informed approach, which may affect disclosure. Further, the need for specialised support is becoming more urgent, due to anti-migrant policies which are chipping away at access to the NRM. 

The evidence threshold problem

FLEX published a blog last August commenting on the changing evidence threshold for reasonable grounds decisions (the decision that acts as a gateway to decide whether individuals enter the NRM or not). FLEX outlined the brutal effect the change in guidance had on negative reasonable grounds decisions, and the subsequent legal battle to overturn these changes. 

While the government was required to update the evidence threshold after July 2023, positive reasonable grounds decisions have still not returned to their pre-2023 levels as was hoped.  

Given the increased scrutiny that people seeking NRM support face in the very early stages of the process, potential referred cases benefit from increased time and attention with first responders. Best practice would ensure first responders have sufficient time to build trust, gather appropriate evidence, and compile a detailed referral. A less detailed referral risks a negative decision, not because an individual wasn’t trafficked, but because there wasn’t evidence that they were. Kalayaan also highlighted this as a reason for reduced capacity to take on new cases in their report. 

Furthermore, a recent change to the process for reconsideration requests places further pressure on the initial referral. Now, only one reconsideration request may be submitted, within 30 days, for either a rejection at reasonable grounds or conclusive grounds stage. If a first responder puts together a poor quality referral, due to lack of attention, training, or capacity, this could result in a negative reasonable grounds decision. Following this, there will only be one opportunity, under a time crunch, for the potential victim to appeal the decision. 

Questionable opportunities for support

For those cases that are able to get past the first hurdle of the reasonable grounds decision, the challenges continue. Support within the NRM through the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract (MSVCC) is highly varied, spread across several agencies, resulting in a muddied and unreliable system. For migrant workers, the NRM is not a pathway to long term regularisation, and, even if they are found to be victims of trafficking, will not necessarily result in even a short term grant of leave. 

People working in precarious sectors, people with restricted, insecure or undocumented immigration status, and people from marginalised groups face a higher risk of exploitation or modern slavery. Traffickers can take advantage of a person’s vulnerabilities to control them. For example, a number workers on the health & care work visa have reported being afraid to raise concerns about mistreatment because of fear of losing their work authorisation, or due to threats to their safety. The NRM is intended to help someone access support and then reduce their risk of re-trafficking, but in the absence of strong worker protections or a pathway to long term regularisation, many marginalised groups will stay marginalised. 

The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC) commissioned the University of Nottingham Rights Lab to put together a report published in 2021 highlighting the disruptive nature of the NRM to people who do not already have a right to work in the UK. Since the NRM does not grant the right to work, it places applicants in a limbo period. FLEX, along with a coalition of other organisations, put out a related brief covering this issue, along with recommendations for providing access to work. Since then, people referred into the NRM still do not have the right to work, but wait times for conclusive grounds decisions have significantly increased, leaving people in limbo and unable to move on from their trafficking experience for years at a time. 

Even a positive final stage decision obtained through the NRM will not necessarily leave to any grant of leave to remain. Individuals who receive a positive conclusive grounds decision through the NRM may be granted “temporary permission to stay,” which will not exceed 30 months and will only be given in specific circumstances (introduced last year under the Nationality and Borders Act). Helen Bamber Foundation argues that the narrowing criteria, in the context of already “extremely low grant rates,” creates a “significant risk of survivors being left without status and at risk of removal and/or re-trafficking.”

Of course, there are important entitlements that can be accessed through the NRM, such as access to material assistance, counselling and information, accommodation, and so on. However, these rights are not guaranteed and are subject to a person’s situation and individual advocacy. Access to these entitlements don’t come from a centralised place; support workers must refer cases to relevant charities or local authorities. A recent report from the UK BME Anti-Slavery Network (BASNET) highlights “lack of standardisation in service delivery” across the NRM, as well as issues of discrimination, lack of sensitivity, and problems with safety and security in safe houses. 

Failing workers

All the above problems with access to the NRM do not take into account people who fall short of the threshold for modern slavery, but are facing extreme exploitation. For example, an individual who is destitute may make a “choice” to work under exploitative conditions in order to survive. As FLEX’s recent report argues, “external constraints and indirect coercion limits the ability to ‘freely’ make choices, and those decisions and actions that appear to be uncoerced, may take place against a backdrop of indirect coercion.” In failing to recognise the nuances of the continuum of exploitation, the NRM system neglects people who engage in the informal economy and have no access to employment rights. As such, it fails to protect yet another group of workers. 

As a result of these various pressures, the NRM system not only excludes more and more people, but also has become a less viable option for frontline organisations who identify cases of modern slavery, and for individuals experiencing it. The drivers of exploitation are clear, and workers, regardless of their immigration status or employment status, would benefit from enhanced labour market enforcement and worker protections rather than an overburdened mechanism only accessible to people who have fallen into severe exploitation. As one care worker puts it, in FLEX’s report, “If they gave a work visa here, I think [there would be] less exploitation, less racism, and everything.”  

To view our timeline showing changes to the NRM since its implementation in 2008, click here.