The UK is falling significantly short of international labour standards. In fact, the government’s labour migration policy and wider hostile environment actively produces risks of labour exploitation. In 2022, labour exploitation was the most commonly reported form of adult modern slavery cases recorded on the National Referral Mechanism, amounting to 39% of all recorded cases.
Additionally, there have been an increasing number of reports of labour exploitation resulting from newly created and expanding visa routes such as the health and care worker visa and seasonal worker scheme (as discussed in a recent Free Movement podcast). In many of these cases, such instances of labour exploitation largely fly under the radar where they are not seen to meet the threshold for modern slavery, despite often significant harm.
The UK has ratified a large number of international conventions and protocols creating a raft of obligations. This article seeks to non-exhaustively set out some of the key areas in which the UK is failing to meet their own obligations and abide by international best practice on preventing labour exploitation.
Labour market enforcement and exploitation
The UK’s approach to labour exploitation is overwhelmingly shaped by the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the accompanying modern slavery guidance as well as by the policy based National Referral Mechanism for identifying victims of trafficking (NRM), which was established in 2009. As a result, the UK government places a significant emphasis on after-the-fact criminal justice responses rather than removing or mitigating the risks of exploitation in the first place.
Ultimately, systemic underfunding has also meant that labour market inspectorates conduct an extremely limited number of proactive inspections of workplaces. In this reactive system, the onus is placed on the worker to report violations. However, a host of factors mean that the workers that are the most vulnerable to exploitation are often the least likely to come forward. As recognised by the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) in their second round evaluation, there is a need for ‘workplace inspections, including on health and safety, compliance with labour standards and revenue laws, in deterring instances of human trafficking for forced labour and identifying possible victims’ of trafficking.’
The UK falls seriously short of international good practice on labour inspections. The International Labour Organisation’s Convention 81 includes a benchmark of one labour market inspector per 10,000 workers. The UK has just 0.29 labour inspectors per 10,000 employees, ranking 27th out of 33 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. In this sense, the UK remains ill-equipped to meaningfully address non-compliance with labour law.
The government previously committed to establishing a Single Enforcement Body but ended up scrapping its plans in December 2022. Though less ambitious than was initially intimated, the government pledged that the Single Enforcement Body would have combined the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, HMRC National Minimum Wage team and Employment Agency Standards inspectorate in 2018. This would have gone some way towards simplifying the incredibly fissured and underfunded labour market enforcement system in the UK. Currently there are six bodies as well as local authorities who have responsibilities for enforcing labour rights, each with separate mandates.
Such fragmentation results in a system that is difficult for workers to navigate, and difficult for authorities to navigate. Indeed, in his inspection on the immigration system as it relates to the agricultural sector, the Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration highlighted that challenges with enforcing labour law compliance partially stemmed from ‘a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities of the various government departments or bodies involved.’
Labour exploitation under the threshold of modern slavery
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 tasked the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority with responsibility for modern slavery. However, this has meant that they must wait for a situation to meet the threshold for modern slavery before action can be taken. This leaves a significant gap in protection and support. Looking at the seasonal worker scheme, while the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority licence scheme operators who recruit workers for the scheme they have confirmed that they do not proactively inspect farms, and instead will only conduct a visit where there are allegations of modern slavery having occurred. Similar issues have been identified in the adult social care sector.
Though not classified as modern slavery, the issues that these workers face may include bullying, harassment, and non-payment of wages, illegal recruitment fees and significant repayment clauses where they are charged vast sums of money if they leave their employment early. This can have a serious harmful impact and leave workers extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
Recruitment and the ‘Employer Pays’ Principle
The ‘employer pays principle’ is the first principle set out in the Dhaka principles for migration with dignity, and is contained within the International Organisation for Migration’s IRIS standards. It holds that the costs of recruitment should not be borne by workers.
The ‘employer pays principle’ has been adopted on some visa routes such as the health and care worker visa. This is not universal and the ‘employer pays principle’ has not been incorporated into other routes such as the seasonal worker scheme. This, in part, contributes to the serious debt bondage that many workers on the scheme face.
Nevertheless, even where the ‘employer pays principle’ has been incorporated into immigration policy, poor enforcement has meant that illegal recruitment costs remain a significant issue. Knowledge of code of practice designed to safeguard against illegal recruitment fees and huge repayment fees is poor, or worse, it is actively ignored.
The UK has ratified International Labour Organisation’s Labour Inspection Convention 81. Article 3 of Convention 81 sets out the functions of labour inspection system, with subsection 2 stipulating that:
Any further duties which may be entrusted to labour inspectors shall not be such as to interfere with the effective discharge of their primary duties or to prejudice in any way the authority and impartiality which are necessary to inspectors in their relations with employers and workers.
Despite this, labour market enforcement in the UK has been largely subordinated to immigration enforcement. As part of this, labour market enforcement bodies are known to share information about trafficking victims’ and survivors’ migration status with immigration enforcement, and conduct joint or simultaneous inspections with immigration enforcement. This acts as a major deterrent to reporting and puts undocumented at significant risk of detention and removal.
Convention 189 on Domestic Workers
The UK has not signed or ratified International Labour Organisation Convention 189 on Domestic Workers. This leaves a significant gap in the ability to support domestic workers against labour exploitation. Domestic work is recognised as a high-risk sector for exploitation both internationally and by the UK’s own authorities, with isolation in private households, the informality of the work and vulnerabilities arising from immigration status. In the UK’s current labour market enforcement system, domestic workers are excluded from a number of key labour protections.
At the fourth-cycle Universal Periodic Review of the UK at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK accepted the USA’s recommendation that the UK takes ‘steps to ensure migrant workers are not left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from employers and the UK visa system’. We are yet to see any serious attempts to take such steps. Instead, we are seeing a government that continues to expand such routes, and put forward policies that will actively put migrant workers at risk of exploitation, such as the increase in immigration fees and the ‘Illegal’ Migration Act.
The UK must adopt a preventative approach to labour exploitation. As part of this, we call on the government to implement a Single Enforcement Body that is accessible to workers in practice, adequately funded, has secure reporting pathways in place, and provided with robust enforcement powers. This is a needed and vital step for addressing labour exploitation.