UK Demand for Migrant Workers Raises Exploitation Concerns

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin January 26, 2023

​A worker shortage in the United Kingdom has raised demand for foreign workers and, along with it, concerns about mistreatment—even modern slavery.

In early 2022, Sara Thornton, the country's anti-slavery commissioner at the time (the post has been unfilled since spring 2022), cited several exploitation risks facing migrant agricultural workers, including racism and discrimination by management, debt bondage, recruitment fees, unsafe and unsanitary housing, and contracts not written in their native language.

While an evaluation of a 2019 seasonal worker pilot program found no instances of slavery, there were strong indicators of exploitation, she said, noting that "modern slavery and severe cases of labor exploitation tend to be hidden from public view and are rarely discovered during audits and compliance visits."

A major expansion of the U.K.'s seasonal-worker visa program has raised risks of mistreatment. The program has been touted as a recruitment opportunity as far away as the Caribbean and Nepal, Thornton added. The U.K. has issued 40,000 seasonal-worker visas in 2022, a big jump from the 2,500 granted in 2019; temporary and skilled-worker visas also grew over that period.

To avoid exploiting foreign workers, employers, in addition to following legal requirements related to migrant workers, can adopt various practices the government has suggested.

Protective Moves

"It should go without saying that employers should ensure that they treat all workers fairly and equally and in accordance with U.K. employment law. In the case of vulnerable workers, it may be necessary to take extra steps to ensure they are adequately protected," said Vanessa Ganguin, a London-based attorney for GQ Littler.

Following review of the 2019 seasonal worker pilot, which allowed recruitment of a limited number of migrants from non-European Union countries for temporary farm work, authorities found that almost half of the migrant workers had not received their employment contract in their native language, and more than a fifth alleged ill treatment, racism and discrimination, Ganguin said.

"Workforce training on diversity and discrimination can help prevent this, but businesses—and HR in particular—should understand how to spot signs of exploitation and report concerns. Companies may also wish to check with recruiters and suppliers regarding their own practices for protecting against modern slavery to avoid unwittingly supporting this," Ganguin said.

Migrant workers are eligible for the same rights and protections as resident workers in the U.K., so they should benefit from the same protections on minimum wage, working hours and paid holiday, and the same rights against discrimination, she said, noting that the Gangmasters & Labor Abuse Authority is responsible for protecting vulnerable workers and addressing modern slavery in the U.K.

Sponsor License Needed

Since Brexit took effect, most employers that wish to engage workers from outside of the U.K. must apply for a sponsor license as part of the country's points-based visa system, according to Laura Morrison, an attorney with Dentons in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"There is a rigorous application process so that only genuine employers [that] have proper processes and procedures in place may lawfully hire migrant workers," she said.

"Modern slavery is thankfully only an issue in a very small number of cases in the U.K.," primarily for migrants who are trafficked to the U.K. or try to enter the country without permission, Morrison said. "These groups are most vulnerable to exploitation and to being engaged illegally by unscrupulous employers," are often in debt after paying to reach the country, and are less likely to know about their rights as workers, she noted.

In 2021, activists reported that seasonal workers in Scotland had been pressed to agree to zero-hour contracts (where the employer isn't required to provide any work hours to an employee), incurred large immigration debts, were forced to endure degrading living and working conditions, and were threatened with deportation, according to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

More broadly, many U.K. employers face a big challenge in finding enough skilled workers.

"We have helped to guide many clients through the process of becoming a licensed sponsor," Morrison said. "Employers need to understand the sponsorship regime that underpins the points-based system, and we help them to do so. It is crucial that they comply with the duties imposed on sponsors or they face possible suspension or revocation of their license." 

Morrison noted that a sponsor with a revoked license must terminate sponsored workers' employment.

Licensed sponsors must keep required records and report changes in migrant workers' status, according to Morrison.

Access to workers is the biggest immigration-related issue facing U.K. employers since Brexit, Ganguin said.

Changes in skilled work visa regulations have helped boost the numbers. Officials lowered skill and salary thresholds, and removed impediments like advertising requirements and caps on migrant numbers, Ganguin explained, "but the government has been adamant that the system is still built around skilled migration" and is reluctant to expand visas for lower-skilled roles.

"This has caused significant problems for some employers in being able to meet staffing needs," Ganguin said.

With Brexit, U.K. employers lost access to the European Economic Area (EEA) labor market, she noted. While the increase in skilled worker visas has helped, many jobs do not qualify due to skill level or low salaries, said Ganguin. Work visas generally restrict migrants to working for one employer, limiting their ability to react to problems or abuses, whereas EEA citizens benefiting from free movement were able to move jobs freely before Brexit, she said.

Morrison noted the U.K. government has suggested good practices employers can take to ease conditions for migrant workers.

Among the many measures suggested by the U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive, employers could provide foreign workers with translated materials, pair them with a more experienced co-worker who speaks the same language, train supervisors on clear communication, allow attendance at workplace English classes and emphasize the need to report accidents.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a reporter and writer in Philadelphia.



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