In February, the UK Government announced new post-Brexit immigration measures promising to “take back control of our borders”, introducing an Australian-style points-based system limiting the number of ‘low-skilled’ foreign workers in the UK. In this blog, Dr Rose Broad and Professor David Gadd explain why, far from protecting both foreign and British workers, the new measures could leave both groups at greater risk of exploitation.
- Most victims of modern slavery are those who are indebted, and have limited access to work.
- Limiting legitimate opportunities for foreign workers to come to the UK will only increase their likelihood of accessing illegal employment.
- In turn, this retrenches exploitation of migrant workers, while increasing pressure on British workers to accept lower working conditions as standards are driven down.
The new measures announced by the government have been championed in the context of the hostile environment policy, justified as necessary to reduce the risks posed by foreign criminals and the incidence of modern slavery. However, the Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s response to the points-based system was lukewarm and highlighted that ‘people-traffickers “will seek every opportunity to abuse new immigration policies”’. Arguably, however, the bigger risk is that in intensifying its hostile immigration policy, the government will heighten the vulnerabilities that lead to modern slavery.
Susceptibility to exploitation
Labour exploitation usually happens when people travel to work in highly competitive industries where workers’ rights are poorly protected. A spotlight has been cast on this during the pandemic in both clothing and food processing industries. Pressures to reduce costs can be alleviated by brokers who operate around the law, bringing in foreign nationals who are willing to work for lower pay, some of whom become indebted through the process of travelling and accept payment in terms of accommodation, food or relinquishing parts of the debt. Potentially anyone could become a victim of modern slavery, but people who are indebted and have limited access to work are more vulnerable, as evidenced in this research. Some low-skilled migrants are EU nationals who have utilised freedom of movement to seek out better lives. Others are non-EU nationals trying to do exactly the same thing but without the legal right to work and/or enter the UK. Consequently, low-skilled non-EU workers are more likely to have paid someone to smuggle them in – sometimes ending tragically – or to have made their own way with false documents, or to have overstayed as tourists or students. Those in situations of legal precariousness are at even greater risk of indebtedness and have little recourse to law when they become trapped in exploitative relationships.
Journeys that end in sex trafficking follow a similar process to other forms of labour exploitation although this is rarely explained in high profile reporting about the ‘evil’ of ‘organised crime’. While some women are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, this is rare in the UK. It is more common for women who have previously worked as sex workers in their home countries to be persuaded that they could earn more in the UK – often by family, boyfriends or other acquaintances who later become exploiters – or for them to travel thinking they are going to undertake jobs as masseurs or exotic dancers, only to discover that the work available is not as promised. Again, those whose legal status is precarious are more susceptible to exploitation by traffickers and less likely to report victimisation.
Tackling sex trafficking
One likely response to this conundrum will be the criminalisation of those who buy sex. As has been voiced recently in France, Northern Ireland, Canada and Sweden, many sex workers find that this forces the sex industry into less secure spaces. Once exposed to the risk of criminalisation, sex buyers seek to protect themselves from being arrested. This exposes sex workers to greater risks of violence and reduces the willingness of sex buyers to share information about women who they suspect are being exploited. What is rarely said in relation to ‘prostitution’ is that laws that were initially formed in response to concerns about morality and public health that were barely suitable in the 20th century have even more perverse consequences for 21st century migrant sex workers who are often dependent on third parties for protection, accommodation, and to advertise their services.
Our research shows that many people who are convicted as traffickers, share similar life trajectories to the people they exploit, whether as sex workers or unskilled labourers. Limiting legitimate opportunities for both low-skilled workers to work legitimately in the UK and for employers to hire foreign nationals for low-skilled work easily, is likely to extend the reach of clandestine and exploitative practices in terms of both movement and employment.
The intensification of the UK’s hostile immigration policy will increase the number of foreign national workers in legally and economically precarious situations, as new arrivals from EU countries find themselves in the same predicament as those from outside the EU. In other words, it is not merely that any new immigration policy creates new opportunities for people looking to circumvent the law. Rather, this specific policy removes the rights of those deemed ‘low-skilled foreign workers’ to legal protection and increases their likelihood of accessing employment outside legitimate markets.
Better alternatives would involve scrapping the hostile environment policy in favour of guaranteeing rights to migrant workers; increasing and extending the capacity of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to regulate terms of work across all markets – including the sex industry – and creating more robust frameworks for corporate responsibility, especially with regard to supply chains.
Conservative governments have periodically promised to do the latter to honour their commitment to eradicating modern slavery, although the lack of meaningful penalty continues to impact on enforcement. The UK Government needs to recognise that it simply cannot achieve this policy goal while being hostile to migrant workers. As exposed through the ‘endemic abuse’ suffered by many workers in Leicester garment factories, the broadening of the hostile environment policy will only reduce recourse to support among potential victims of modern slavery. In so doing, it further retrenches the exploitation of migrant workers, and ultimately increases the pressures on non-migrant workers to accept poorer working conditions.
Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.