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At Focus on Labour Exploitation, we have been looking for some time at the risks that immigration control measures, in particular, pose for modern slavery. Obviously, with this Bill—as with all measures regarding Brexit—we have a new risk that a much greater proportion of workers could be undocumented if they do not register under the EU settlement scheme, or because of the confusion that Brexit provides.
We think that there are particular risks arising from measures set out in the immigration White Paper, namely the temporary and migrant worker programmes and the short-term visas discussed in that paper. Our particular concerns are about barriers to the integration of the workers, which could mean that they have limited access to their labour rights. That puts workers at real risk of not understanding their rights in the UK labour market, and at risk of exploitation. There is also the potential for things like debt bondage: if recruitment measures are taken overseas over which we do not have jurisdiction, and workers have to pay high fees in order to come to the UK—whether recruitment fees or just for work permits and travel—that could leave them open to a real risk of debt bondage.
There is a real risk, for instance, that the 12-month programme will mean a constant churn of vulnerable workers who are not aware of their rights and do not have the chance to build up social networks that could support them. Workers will not have recourse to public funds. Those coming here to work in precarious jobs—for instance, in the hospitality sector, in which they might be on a zero-hours contract and have 40 hours of work one week and two hours the next—will, if they have no recourse to public funds, be very vulnerable.
A lot of other specific migration policy issues make workers vulnerable. For instance, under the seasonal workers pilot, which is also in the immigration White Paper and is being brought in through secondary legislation, workers have no guaranteed hours or guaranteed earnings. If they come here to work in the agricultural sector and are on a zero-hours contract, they will not necessarily be earning enough to cover their flights or visa costs if there is a bad harvest, for instance. Those are the kinds of things that we need to think about.
We have had some positive signs from the Home Secretary, who mentioned at a hearing of the Select Committee on Home Affairs that measures would be taken to evaluate the risk of exploitation that the seasonal workers pilot presents to workers. However, we are still quite anxious about the detail and about what it will mean in practice.
We look a lot at the role of labour inspectorates in preventing modern slavery, and we have a particular concern about the limited resources of agencies such as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which will need to license labour providers under the seasonal workers pilot, whatever country they may come from. Understanding the legislation of the countries concerned and identifying and engaging with prospective labour providers will obviously be a heavy drain on the agency’s resources, but we have not heard that any extra resources will be provided to facilitate that role. We also welcome the Government’s intention to create a single labour inspectorate, but the detail available at this stage is very limited.
It is positive that the Home Secretary has recognised that there is a risk. We look forward to engaging on the detail of how it will be addressed.
It is important to recognise that within the discussion about ending free movement and moving towards temporary migration schemes, we need to include labour market enforcement, as Caroline said. The UK has one of the least resourced labour inspectorates in Europe: the International Labour Organisation recommends that there should be one labour inspector per 10,000 workers, but the UK has 0.4 per 10,000. Per worker, half as much resourcing is put into labour inspection as in Ireland. There is a real need for proactive labour market enforcement, especially as more and more migrants are brought under immigration control, given fewer rights and made more vulnerable.
Q We have just heard evidence from the CBI, which claims that the temporary scheme does not lead to exploitation. What is the evidence that it would lead to exploitation?
I have already mentioned a few of the features of temporary schemes that make people vulnerable to exploitation. One of the main ones is that allowing people to stay for only six or 12 months means a constant churn of workers who are not necessarily aware of their labour rights, who do not have time to build networks and so on. There are often other restrictions, such as “no recourse to public funds”, that come with temporary contracts and put people at risk of exploitation. Those are the key issues with temporary migration programmes—there is definitely a risk.
Yes, certainly. We have looked quite extensively at other temporary migration programmes around the world and previous schemes in the UK, and we certainly see a risk in relation to recruitment fees. As I mentioned earlier, there is the possibility of elevated fees and also, as Members will be aware, the definition of debt bondage is an increased fee that is disproportionate to the initial fee paid, and using that fee to coerce an individual into an exploitative working condition.
We see that as a real risk in relation to overseas recruitment, but there are also the high fees that people will have to pay for their visa and for their travel to the UK. Obviously, because we know more of the detail on the seasonal workers pilot, we know that people will be coming for a short period of time—a six-month period—and, as Meri said, on zero-hours contracts, so there is no guarantee of a high rate of pay necessarily, and with potentially quite high up-front fees. So the risk is great there.
Also, we have looked at things like bilateral labour agreements. For example, Canada and Mexico have established an agreement on agricultural workers, where clear terms are established in terms of the minimum hours that workers will have, the minimum working week and the hours that people can be guaranteed, so that there are clear terms for workers, and so workers can budget accordingly and not face the risk of a huge debt that they cannot then repay, or, as I mentioned, a debt that increases disproportionately in relation to the initial debt, which is a risk.
For example, in Sweden they have migration from Thailand to pick berries, and what they were finding was that people would come, and they would pay high costs for flights, and then they would pay visa costs, and then they would come to Sweden and the blueberry season would be poor and they would not be able to pick enough even to cover their flights. So they would come, work for the summer and then leave in debt.
What Sweden has done, for instance, is that there is a minimum guaranteed wage that employers in Sweden have to prove they can pay. It is a minimum of approximately £1,100 per month for these workers, to each worker that they are recruiting, to make sure that people are not coming and not earning enough to cover their visa costs or their flight costs. There are also important protections that could be put in place.
Q That is exactly my question. What could we put in place, or what could the Government put in place, to strengthen protections for workers in this situation? I wonder whether you might want to say a little more specifically about what you would look for in terms of a Government or legislative solution, and to what extent there might be other features or actors that might offer protections.
As I said, we work a lot on the role of the labour inspectorates, particularly, while it still exists—as I said, there is a discussion about a single labour inspectorate and the Government have committed to that—at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority’s licensing being expanded to high-risk sectors, particularly those that are likely to take on a number of short-term workers in the future. Those sectors are already high-risk and then they might have a high proportion of short-term migrant workers. We feel that there is a really strong case then for licensing those sectors—sectors discussed, such as care and construction—where there is a real risk to workers of exploitation.
We have also looked at the Agricultural Wages Board and the seasonal workers pilots, obviously in the agricultural sector. We are lucky that we still have an Agricultural Wages Board in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, but the absence of one in England and Wales is a real risk in terms of setting the standards for workers in the agriculture sector. So I think it would be useful to look at what kind of worker voice could be integrated in setting standards in the agriculture sector, again given the high risk of isolation and exploitation of workers.
Another important thing would be to grant people access to public funds. If people are coming here on work contracts they are paying taxes, so they are paying for their services. It seems counterintuitive to not allow people access to services they are already paying for, making them vulnerable in that process.
I would mention again these bilateral labour agreements, to have some kind of engagement with sending categories. At the moment the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has to rapidly try to license labour providers in a range of countries outside the EEA. They have already found it quite hard within the EEA to license labour providers, understanding the different jurisdictions and engaging with workers’ possible vulnerabilities. Having a structure and engagement on the basis of labour rights with a country that sends workers to our country and ensuring labour standards are upheld offers a framework, at least, for enforcing labour rights.
Q How much of your research is focused exclusively on agricultural workers as opposed to workers in other sectors? Do you have any information or data on other areas in terms of the percentage of people using these visa schemes who would be working outside agriculture?
The visa scheme announced in that amount of detail—and for which we have pilot operators—is the seasonal workers pilot. That is in the agricultural sector. The short-term—as they have been termed—visas in the immigration White Paper, the temporary short-term workers schemes, are for all sectors as far as we can see.
We looked particularly at high-risk sectors in the UK. The most recent in-depth piece of research we did looked at the construction sector. We are also conducting work looking at the hospitality industry, particularly at hotels. Generally we look at sectors that we believe are at risk of exploitation. We are particularly interested in the functioning of the seasonal workers pilot because that is up and running, in so far as we are engaging with the pilot operators. We are talking to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority about how they will oversee that pilot.
We have done research on the previous seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which ended in 2013, and we have also done research on the sector-based scheme, which brought workers into hospitality and food processing. That ended in 2013, but had been slowly being phased out.
In the sector-based scheme it was found that workers were paying up to £10,000 in recruitment fees to come to the UK. They were heavily in debt when they arrived in the UK, and were therefore unable to leave abusive or exploitative situations because they were afraid of not being able to pay back that debt.
In the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, there were a lot of issues around people being unable to change their employer. They had to have permission from the scheme operator to do so, but sometimes the scheme operator and the employer were the same person. In practice it was very difficult to change employers, meaning that if you were in an exploitative or abusive situation you had to either choose to leave the country and leave your source of income, or put up with it. There are a lot of cases of people not being paid the minimum wage, and of people not having guaranteed hours and so not earning enough. There was an over- supply of workers, meaning that employers did not have to provide enough work for people to earn money. There will be a similar problem in this scheme; there are not any guaranteed hours in the seasonal workers programme pilot.
Q If I were to look at this from the perspective of my constituents, I do not think that a lot of the suggestions around just not having the visas would fly. I think people would want to know what sort of things the Government could do on the employer side, to improve the situation. For example, do you think that instead of a 12 month on, 12 month off regime, being able to renew after the end of a 12-month visa would be helpful in providing some type of certainty?
That would definitely be better than having to bring in people who had no networks here or no idea about their labour rights. If you have people who can stay for longer periods, over time they learn about their rights, and have a better chance of unionising and, essentially, of gaining employment rights, or enforcing their employment rights.
Q Do you think that providing information about those rights on arrival, rather than by osmosis while they are here, would be a better way of ensuring that people were aware of what they could access and what their rights were?
Definitely. Pre-departure training and on-arrival training about people’s rights is really important. Having a multilingual complaints hotline or a 24-hour hotline, on which workers can make complaints is also important, but the most important thing would be to have proactive well-resourced labour market enforcement, to ensure that people were not depending on migrant workers and vulnerable workers coming forward and enforcement being based on reaction to a worker making a complaint. There is a lot of evidence to show that vulnerable workers do not come forward, so what needs to be in place is really proactive enforcement.
Q Quite a few of my questions have already been asked. Just to clarify, is FLEX saying that you would not want a seasonal agricultural workers scheme at all, or are you saying that if you are going to have one you have to ensure that you learn from the previous scheme and the experience of other countries, and that there are things you can do to try to clamp down on exploitation?
We feel like many, I suppose, in the business of protecting workers’ rights in a conflicted situation. We recognise that there will be a shortage of workers in this country after Brexit. Equally, looking at seasonal workers programmes, as we have done over the past year, in great detail, workers in those programmes are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. If we were asked to start from nothing, we would not be proposing seasonal temporary workers schemes, but we are trying to engage with the programmes that are being suggested, to advocate for strong protective mechanisms to be integrated into those programmes.
Q It minimises those risks, yes. You have mentioned a couple of times the idea of bilateral agreements. How exactly do they work and how do they prevent some of these issues?
The agreement I mentioned between Mexico and Canada has the function of establishing conditions that workers can expect, but also what employers can expect of workers on the scheme. It is an engagement on the standards that can be expected in relation to the agricultural workers programme in particular. I guess there is a whole range of bilateral labour agreements that are established between sending and receiving countries. We are particularly interested where there is a facility for them to establish terms and conditions for workers, and also where there is a facility to guarantee a set number of hours or a limit on what the payment for the travel to the destination country might be, and a facility for paying that back in instalments on arrival, which we think would provide less of a risk to the workers.
Q Is there a history of the United Kingdom ever being involved in that type of relationship, perhaps in the previous SAWS scheme? Is there any discussion about it happening with this scheme, or is that not really on the agenda?
Q Yes, that would be very helpful. You were talking also about some previous schemes that had thrown up problems with exploitation. Is the overseas domestic worker visa an example of that?
The overseas domestic worker visa had problems, which led to the review by James Ewing, around the time of the Modern Slavery Act. Some measures were introduced by the Government to address the risk to workers on the overseas domestic worker visa. The interviews with workers to engage them on their rights have been introduced, which we have talked about in relation to this scheme as something we could learn from that visa—on the seasonal workers pilot, having an information session with workers when they arrive about their employment rights and entitlements in the UK, which is something to learn from the problems with the overseas domestic worker visa and the isolation that workers felt on that scheme.
With that scheme, workers were tied to their employer. That was then removed because it was recognised that it is incredibly problematic. If workers were tied to an employer and wanted to leave, they would lose their visa and have to return to their country of origin. Even after that provision was removed, workers could only come for six months, which then meant that if they only had two months left on their visa, it was very hard for them to find new work and to change employers. In practice it was very difficult. Similarly to the previous SAWS scheme, technically you could change employers, but in practice it was very difficult, and in practice is what matters.
Q Okay, so learning from previous schemes, investing in labour market enforcement, bilateral agreements potentially—anything else we need to be thinking about in order to try to prevent any future system increasing the risk of exploitation?
From the brief discussion with my colleague from the TUC, I believe she mentioned the illegal working offence, which I think we were talking about during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016. We would certainly support a discussion of the repeal of that offence, which we raised at the time. It places workers at great risk of exploitation. It is recognised by the Government and by the International Labour Organisation that the threat of denunciation to the authorities, regardless of a worker’s status, is a contributing factor to coercion and exploitation. As we mentioned at the beginning, the real risk to workers of the coercive power of an offence of illegal working is extremely dangerous in relation to modern slavery.
I raised at the time the fact that people would be fearful of coming forward to be referred to the UK national referral mechanism because of that offence, that traffickers would use the threat of the offence of illegal working to keep people in abusive and exploitative conditions, and that there is then the risk of criminalisation and detention of trafficked persons. The detention of trafficked persons is something that we have seen recently, and the difficulties of individuals being identified once they are in detention.
Part of the problem in agriculture is that people tend to be quite isolated in their working environment, because they are often employed on farms that are far from cities and they might not have transport options. That is definitely one of the contributing factors. There are also a lot of other factors. That was recognised in the past when there was the Agricultural Wages Board. In the ’80s, when most of the wages boards were eliminated, the Agricultural Wages Board was kept, because it was recognised that there were specific vulnerabilities in agriculture, for instance the fact that crops can fail or there might be bad weather and workers needed to be protected against not being paid in those cases. So yes, I think there is.
Q Do you think workers’ protections are best secured through immigration policy or through a range of other Government Departments and tools? How could we better work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for example, to secure that?
Workers’ protections are best secured through the promotion and protection of labour rights. Immigration policy can serve to undermine the rights of workers—for example, the absence of routes to access justice for undocumented workers, the limitations on undocumented workers coming forward to report abuses and exploitative practices against them for fear of immigration repercussions such as those I have just mentioned, and the offence of illegal working—and there can be an undermining influence from things such as short-term visa schemes. If protections are not put in place, there is a real risk of exploitation.
As I have mentioned, we advocate for the role of labour inspectorates and labour market enforcement in promoting, protecting and upholding labour rights, along with a number of other measures. For example, Meri mentioned access to a complaints line being crucial so that workers can report abuse against them, but we also need strong, proactive labour market enforcement. We have advocated for a 60% focus on proactive operations for labour market enforcement bodies, and a 40% focus on reactive operations. We are very grateful to the Government for recognising that in their response to the director of labour market enforcement’s annual strategy last year.
Q We have taken on board FLEX’s position that there should not be a seasonal agricultural worker scheme. You will have heard about the pressures from organisations such as the National Farmers Union, and the comment this morning from Alan Manning, who I think pointed to parts of the agricultural sector being 100% reliant on labour that has come in from overseas. How can we best make a SAWS scheme that works to protect the rights of those individuals who are coming in through the scheme, and perhaps protects them from the burden of costs? You have been clear about the costs that might be imposed on workers, but the message I got from the NFU last Friday was that they are concerned about the burden of costs being shifted very heavily, not on to the labour providers but on to the farms themselves. Those farms might be in the position of paying up-front costs of £1,000 per worker, just to make sure that they come in and are part of the scheme.
As Caroline said earlier, we recognise that if these schemes are being brought in, they need to be made to work as well as possible for workers, and there are definitely protections that can be put in place. One of the key ones is that workers have to be able to change employers freely, under reasonable terms. Wages and standards should be set together in a tripartite way, together with trade unions, Government and employers, so that considerations that are particular to agricultural workers are taken into account.
There is already good work in the agricultural sector, such as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority licencing labour providers. Anyone who wants to bring workers into the UK, no matter whether they are in the UK or overseas, has to have a licence and to follow specific terms and conditions. Those conditions include, for instance, the fact that they are not allowed to charge recruitment fees. We need to make sure that the GLAA can properly licence overseas recruitment agencies, and that they have the resources and capacity to do so. Currently, for example, if the seasonal workers pilot is being opened to all countries outside the EU, that becomes a monumental task. Making sure that the GLAA is able to do that task, and has the resources and capacity to do so, is crucial.
We also have to recognise the real risks to those workers. That is why I was talking about a complaints mechanism: establishing something like a 24-hour multilingual hotline for those workers, so that we can make sure that we get to those workers who are most vulnerable and in need of assistance, would really help.
You are right that possibly the Home Office is not best placed to do that. It holds a twin role with BEIS hosting the director of labour market enforcement, so it has some engagement in labour market enforcement and oversight. You are right, there could be a BEIS role.
Q Are you saying it is more about enforcement than regulation? Are there flaws in the regulation that you are concerned about, or is it really about capacity around enforcement? We can have all the regulations in the world, but if the enforcement is not there, it doesn’t help.
It is difficult to say, for instance, about the 12-month programme because there has not been a lot of information about it. We do not know which countries are lower risk; we do not have a lot of information about those programmes. There are definitely aspects of temporary migration programmes that put workers at risk. Anything that restricts workers’ and migrants’ rights is going to include some level of risk.
I feel as if the Brexit conversation and the immigration conversation has been focused very much on whether we should have more or less migration, rather than on how we make sure that we are providing decent and good work for everyone. Part of that discussion is around regulation. They are so intricately tied to each other that it is hard to separate them.
I mentioned the scheme in Sweden for migrant berry pickers. They have extended a collective bargaining agreement. There is a trade union. They have collectively bargained with employers to decide what the labour conditions should be. The trade unions are allowed to access labour sites and inspect them and make sure that the terms in those collective agreements are being upheld. When an employer in Sweden employs a migrant worker from Thailand, they have to share the contract with the trade union to make sure that it fulfils those terms and they have to provide a baseline salary, which is approximately £1,100. Importantly, the recruitment agencies in Thailand have to have a presence in Sweden, so that they are under the jurisdiction of Sweden. If they are charging recruitment fees, they can be held accountable in Sweden for doing that. That is one example where there have been successes in dealing with the exploitation of workers.
Thank you Chair. Let me say, first of all, that throughout this day your chairmanship has been excellent. We have got through a lot of evidence. My final question—
Q That will be the last question then. Earlier, we heard evidence in relation to the 12-month visa. The suggestion was that the period could be increased to two to three years, then loaded with the fees, which are increased for the second and third years? What are your opinions on both the time period—having longer than 12 months—and on increasing fees?
I would have to think about that and get back to you. In terms of having longer than a 12-month period, I have already said that I think that would be important. The danger of these temporary migration programmes and of having temporary workers who are not integrated into UK society is that you are creating a two-tier employment system where you have migrant workers in low-wage jobs with poor protections and with fewer rights. They also do not have the right to vote and they do not have any say over the conditions or the laws governing them. Also, they are being changed every year, so they do not have a community, they do not necessarily unionise and so on. It is a dangerous system and I do not see why we would have to limit it to 12 months.
ISSB01 Refugee Rights Europe
ISSB02 Dr Sylvia de Mars, Mr Colin Murray, Prof Aoife O’Donoghue and Dr Ben Warwick
ISSB03 Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ)
ISSB04 Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA)
ISSB05 Bernard Ryan, Professor of Migration Law, University of Leicester
ISSB06 British Medical Association