Immigration Advice Service political correspondent Olivia Bridge outlines the growing risk of Brexit to labour exploitation and human trafficking.
Human trafficking, slavery and labour exploitation have crept into our everyday lives, from the food that we eat (or have delivered); the products we buy and wear; to the plastic we recycle; the paint on our nails and the tarmac we drive on. Despite the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, instances of slavery in the UK are increasing year on year; with cases spiking by 36% to 6,993 in the last year alone. The emergence of so many victims suggests the authorities are only scratching the surface to the true scale of the epidemic. The Global Slavery Index (GSI) estimates there are 136,000 victims ensnared in modern slavery across the UK, which equates to two slaves per every 1,000 people and vastly overshadows the government’s conservative guess of 13,000 victims.
Undeniably, parliament’s blinkered focus on Brexit and ‘hostile environment’ policies – coupled with austerity’s merciless assault on wages, labour law enforcement and trade unions – has made Britain’s once-idyllic landscape fertile for labour exploitation and human misery.
Although the chains and shackles emblematic of the transatlantic slave trade are long gone, contemporary slavery borrows from some of its most harrowing aspects. Victims are kept in squalid and overcrowded accommodation and are financially and physically starved while they are forced into labour, domestic servitude, criminality or prostitution. Vulnerable migrants therefore make for an easy target: gangmasters can confiscate their passports and exploit their insecure immigration status by threatening them with deportation or detention which, in turn, inspires a deep distrust of the authorities. Any language or cultural barriers serve as an additional advantage to the captors as victims can easily be kept from accruing knowledge around their rights.
January 2016 saw the first UK businessman, Mohammed Rafiq, arrested for modern slavery offences. Rafiq had employed trafficked Hungarians to work 20-hour days, 7 days a week for a mere £10 in his Kozee Sleep factory near Leeds. Disturbingly, his ‘slave workforce’ went undetected by ethical auditors as his products made its way onto the high street.
Yet this narrative is sadly all too common. Amazon, the world’s largest online retail giant, reportedly treats staff ‘like robots’ in ‘slave camp’ conditions; with 600 ambulance calls were made to its warehouses between 2015 and 2018. The Environmental Audit Committee further heard in February this year how worker exploitation in the garment industry is ‘as high in Leicester as in Turkey or Bangladesh’. The UK is also home to Europe’s largest slavery ring conviction, after more than 400 trafficked Polish victims were rescued this July.
Freedom of movement is a double edged sword in this respect. It has allowed ringleaders to act with impunity as they ‘collect’ busloads of homeless and other vulnerable people directly off the streets of the poorest regions of Europe (notably Romania, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria), after which they can breeze past border controls into the UK.
However, closing the legal migration route could actually see slavery hike even higher. This is because demand for the cheap labour which the EU has endlessly supplied will not end overnight. While UK bosses have been able to stifle wages and recruit people on zero hours contracts from talent pools all across EU Member States, the government’s 2021 post-Brexit immigration vision seeks to eradicate this reliance by inflicting skill caps and a salary threshold of £30,000 (€33,844.84) on all migrant workers. Unless the UK bumps wages up across low income sectors, Ian Watford, director of the Gangmasters’ and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), warns that vulnerable people ‘may be targeted to fill those jobs’ and plunged into slavery as a result. It is becoming increasingly obvious that diluting access to EU labour after Brexit while simultaneously relying on a model that requires a conveyor belt of disposable, low income workers will prove unsustainable.
The Home Office has further undermined the UK’s efforts in tackling slavery by crafting equally exploitative temporary visa routes after Brexit in a bid to mitigate the inevitable deficit of workers. Both the agricultural scheme and the 12-Month Temporary Visa have sparked concerns from the anti-slavery charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), on the grounds of being employer-dependent and time-restrictive. Unlike conditions under free movement, migrant workers on these schemes are prohibited from changing their employer or seeking permanent settlement in the UK; as their time spent working can never be ‘banked’ towards continuous residency.
These routes are all the more concerning as they arrive at a time when EU nationals lose the majority of their rights in the UK, including access to public funding since only those with permanent status such as British citizenship are able to claim. FLEX argues that the schemes ultimately grant employers more manoeuvrability to exploit, while their staff have less margin to complain and fewer means to escape.
Interestingly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s initiative for an amnesty for the 500,000 to 1 million illegal migrants in the country could provide a backdoor exit for many current victims trapped in slavery. ‘Right to work’ and ‘right to rent’ checks make it virtually impossible for undocumented migrants to exist in the country, resulting in many turning to back-alley and cash-in-hand jobs to survive as well as insecure accommodation. These circumstances commonly pave the way for exploitation and abuse.
‘Lifting the ban’ and allowing asylum seekers to work while they await their claim could also prevent slavery. Although asylum seekers receive £37.75 (€42.57) a week in financial support, many who come with just the clothes on their back are pushed into the arms of gangmasters to find work to support themselves. Despite popular belief, life for an undocumented migrant or asylum seeker in the UK is far from an easy ride.
The government’s efforts so far in attempting to eradicate slavery has been tepid at best. The UK’s law enforcement on labour exploitation is the worst of all EU Member States, with a meagre 0.4 inspectors per 10,000 workers. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) estimated in 2014 that businesses might expect a visit from HMRC every 250 years, which has since risen to 500 years in 2017.
Brexit is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to modern slavery in the UK. The Home Office must address the bleak socioeconomic climate that is gripping the nation. However, the government must also ensure the post-Brexit immigration rules are not playing directly into ringleaders’ hands. Preventative methods in the immigration system must be in place to ensure the heinous atrocities belonging to a bygone era stay exactly there. Unfortunately, however, it feels a little too late.