A new report comes with a stark warning: “As the number of sponsored migrant workers rises every quarter, the issue of migrant labour exploitation is only likely to increase”. Work Rights Centre, a charity that works to support migrants and disadvantaged British residents access employment justice, has today published their report ‘Systemic drivers of migrant worker exploitation in the UK’. Those of you who listened to our recent podcast on the exploitation of seasonal agricultural workers will be familiar with many of the issues raised.
The report is based on over 40 case studies with sponsored workers, interviews with caseworkers, analysis of Home Office guidance and annual reports of labour enforcement agencies. The centre received queries from approximately 400 migrant workers needing help with their employment rights in the ten months to October 2023. Issues raised include withholding of salary, insecure hours and pay, low quality accommodation and insufficient safety equipment, as well as more extreme cases of modern slavery.
The report focusses on those people who have what is referred to as a ‘tied visa’, this is where their permission to be in the UK is dependent on their employer. The risk of exploitation has been identified in the seasonal worker, health and care, and skilled worker routes, among others.
In 2020, EU born workers filled one in every seven factory and machine operations roles, one in seven jobs in food preparation, and one in eight jobs in cleaning, warehousing and other services. Before free movement ended on 31 December 2020, these people were able to move jobs without the need to involve the Home Office, meaning that it was easier to escape poor conditions.
From 1 January 2021, EEA nationals who wanted to work in the UK had to apply under the immigration rules for a visa. For a work visa, this involves having an employer sponsor them. This system was in place prior to 1 January 2021, but the inclusion of EEA nationals in the group of people who needed a work visa meant that the sponsorship system had to be scaled up considerably. In 2019 there were 104,671 worker and temporary worker visas granted and 32,686 sponsors. In 2022 this was 236,061 visas granted and 58,774 sponsors. 2023 is on track to exceed those figures.
The huge increase in the number of people in the UK on work visas was partially driven by the introduction of new work visa categories, including the seasonal worker and health and care visas. As the report points out, what these routes share is the principle of employer sponsorship “which entrenches the power imbalance between migrant workers and employers”.
If a person is dismissed from their employment then their employer has a duty to inform the Home Office, who will then curtail their visa and give them 60 days to get another job or else they must leave the UK. Similarly, if the employer loses its sponsor licence then the employee’s visa will be curtailed. This creates an obvious disincentive for employees to report issues to the Home Office. As the reports says, when people “have already incurred substantial costs to apply for their visa, health surcharge, travel, and basic necessities in the UK, the risk of losing one’s job can make it extremely difficult to report exploitation.” The report also points out the lack of protections for people in short term roles, as unfair dismissal protections can only be accessed after two years’ employment.
Changing employer is very difficult, for example those in the seasonal agricultural worker route are reliant on the visa operator agreeing that the request is a ‘reasonable’ one. Those decisions can vary considerably depending on the operator, the season and the work available.
The no recourse to public funds restriction means that there is no safety net for people wanting to escape exploitation. This can lead to further exploitation occurring during the 60 day period they are given to find another job if their visa is curtailed, as people may be driven to work illegally to support themselves during this period.
The problem of recruitment fees is also raised in the report, with an example given of four Indian nationals who came to the UK on a health and care visa and who had been charged between £20,000 and £25,000 by an agency to arrange their visas. Once they arrived in the UK, they were not offered any work placements and have not been paid, despite their employment contracts providing for a minimum level of working hours. If this is reported and the Home Office removes the sponsor’s licence, those people will have their visas curtailed. There are apparently around 100 people in the same situation with this sponsor.
Lack of enforcement
The report queries whether enforcement resources have been scaled up to the same extent as the increase in sponsors described above, and whether they have enough capacity to carry out enforcement visits. Data provided by the Home Office indicates that they do not and that, at most, the Home Office pays a compliance visit to just one in every 22 registered sponsors. There is also a disproportionate emphasis on immigration controls over good employment practice.
The report also sets out how the UK’s labour enforcement ecosystem is fragmented, creating confusion over who is responsible. HMRC, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and the Employment Standards Inspectorate all have some responsibility for tackling exploitation. The Health and Safety Executive, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and regulatory bodies such as the Care Quality Commission also have roles to play.
In 2016 a Director of Labour Market Enforcement role was created but even they have acknowledged the confusing nature of the system and the problems this causes for workers who need help. For those on visas, the Home Office also has a role, and the report refers to comments made by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration who found “contradictory information about the distribution of responsibilities from Home Office staff and other government departments”. The problem is exacerbated by the bodies having differing approaches and budgets.
Three recommendations were made, to address the exploitation of migrant workers:
- Reform the immigration system, providing more flexibility and ending workers’ dependency on their sponsor
- Introduce a Single Enforcement Body to provide migrant workers with a safe space to raise exploitation issues, separate to immigration enforcement
- Appoint a Migrant Commissioner to lead on developing a migrant worker welfare strategy and coordinate efforts to tackle migrant worker exploitation
The government cannot claim to be unaware of any of this. Last month the Migration Advisory Committee raised it as an issue. Last week the House of Lords Horticultural Committee raised it in their report ‘Sowing the seeds: A blooming English horticultural sector‘ (see also FLEX’s excellent response here). In the House of Lords yesterday questions were raised about what is being done to address the exploitation of foreign health and care workers. As highlighted in the report, the exploitation of people with worker visas is a growing problem that is only going to get worse if no action is taken.