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Treating workers like commodities: Short term work visas and the risks of exploitation

September 30, 2021

Following increasing reports of labour and supply shortages, the UK government has announced it will introduce short term temporary visas in two industries. It will issue 5,000 three-month visas for HGV drivers and 5,500 three-month visas for poultry workers.

There have been warnings for years that one of the impacts of ending free movement with the EU without any proactive mitigation would be labour shortages. There is no published detail on these new immigration schemes at this time, with no evidence that their creation builds on learning from similar migration schemes, proactively addresses exploitation risks, or encompasses planning to ensure the longer-term sustainability of the workforce. FLEX is clear that risks of exploitation are inherent in short term work visas and that short term measures of this type do not address the structural issues in the UK labour market. Nonetheless, as this decision has been taken, it is vital that measures are put in place to mitigate the likelihood that this rushed policy U-turn facilitates labour exploitation.

While well-designed visa routes can enable safe travel and legal work, badly designed schemes can create significant risks by restricting workers’ bargaining power. The UK needs to ensure it is not facilitating exploitation by treating workers as commodities who cannot access legal rights or safeguards. Otherwise, it will create a two-tier workforce, with those entering on short term visa routes cut off from basic rights or access to employment law – both of which are key to preventing exploitation.

The UK has two existing short term visa routes for low paid work. These are the Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa and the Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) for work in agriculture. Reports of exploitation on the Overseas Domestic Worker visa increased dramatically in 2012 when the route was further restricted, preventing workers from changing employer or renewing their visas. This meant that exploitative employers knew that workers could not leave and look for a better job and even complaining carried the risk of being sacked and left destitute and unable to work.

The government evaluation of the SWP, carried out in 2019, remains unpublished, however a 2021 report by FLEX has shown significant risks of exploitation on this visa, with nine ILO indicators of forced labour being met by workers on the scheme. This included a strong risk of being deceived about the terms and conditions of employment at the instance of recruitment, facing penalties and threats at work, and being unable to leave the employer due to risk of destitution and visa restrictions. The study found that workers had to incur significant debt to come to the UK and once here, struggled to earn enough while paying high accommodation costs.

The approach of treating migrant workers as a short-term commodity which can be brought in to fill gaps in the labour market and then sent away is unsafe, unethical, and unproductive. It facilitates exploitation by commodifying and dehumanising key workers, imagining people who do vital jobs to be available on tap to fill gaps and then leave without providing for the practicalities which could make the work viable. It does very little to address labour shortages and it does nothing to address the root causes of the labour shortages of poor pay, long hours, and unsatisfactory working conditions which could and should have been addressed long ago.

The UK needs to plan for a more sustainable, fairer approach that ensures the protection of workers and industries rather than proceeding with unplanned opening and closing of routes without consultation, or speaking with workers as to their needs, learning from existing schemes as to the practicalities and risk areas, or even allowing parliamentary scrutiny. 

We await the detail on the recently announced visas but the extremely short-term nature of these visas – only three months – necessarily make them high-risk because of the limited time people have to earn back on any potential investment they’ve made to secure the visa, including travel costs, visa costs, and potential recruitment fees. The short visa timeframe also creates practical difficulties for workers wanting to challenge underpayment or other non-compliance with labour law, as they will have little access to legal advice, information about their rights, and must leave the UK at the end of their visa period. Short term work visas are also high risk because of the restrictions attached to them, such as being limited to working in a specific sector or for a particular employer, and having no recourse to public funds.

It is vital that attention is given to the likelihood of exploitation on short term work visa schemes and action is taken to mitigate harms and ensure workers on the routes are safe and treated ethically and in line with UK labour laws, ensuring that the routes do not actively facilitate exploitation. As such short-term routes are economically risky for workers, there is a risk that only those who have few options apply, meaning they are already more vulnerable due to push factors such as debt or poverty. The government needs to take into account vulnerabilities created by the nature of the routes themselves and those that are exacerbated by circumstances (e.g. language barriers, debt, poverty, lack of knowledge of rights, lack of support networks, etc.)

Mitigation steps should include at minimum:

  • Visas should not be tied and workers should have the freedom to change employers not only on paper but in practice
  • Visas should be renewable subject to ongoing employment and have a route to settlement
  • Allow workers who faced exploitation and enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to continue to work so reducing their dependency on their employer
  • Access to the NHS and recourse to public funds
  • Access to sick and maternity pay
  • Proactive labour market enforcement with a targeted approach to high-risk sectors is key (regulation alone is ineffective, particularly when visa restrictions limit workers bargaining positions)
  • Enforcement of other standards, e.g. accommodation, health and safety
  • Providing clear and accurate information on rights (in relevant languages), where to get help and what to do if labour laws or employment conditions are breached e.g. wages are not paid
  • Clear written contracts issued in the worker’s language before travel takes place and information sessions in the UK to explain the terms
  • Clarity on terms of employment and expectations for nature and hours of work with the prohibition of zero-hour contracts, and charging for accommodation, transport to work unless there is a minimum income guaranteed
  • Access to specialist independent advice and a ‘fast-track’ reporting channel and resolution mechanism to effectively respond to labour abuses affecting temporary workers
  • Regulation and enforcement to ensure that workers do not pay recruitment fees and the existence of a scheme to reclaim fees which are charged

To avoid a two-tier workforce, all work visas must meet minimum standards which enable workers to exercise rights.

As we look to build back better in post-Brexit, post-COVID Britain, it is high time the UK plans for work visas based on practicalities rather than ideology and plans to address the structural issues of low pay and poor conditions in our work force. To avoid becoming a hub for exploitation, the UK needs to take sustainable steps to raise labour standards and labour enforcement as well as effective retribution schemes to ensure workers can recoup owed wages, or holiday. This must include learning from workers and the experiences of existing migration routes, so that all workers, whatever their status, can exercise rights and challenge exploitation.