LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Migrant workers coming to Britain after Brexit for temporary jobs in farming, construction and cleaning risk being exploited and falling into modern slavery under government plans to minimize labor shortages, according to labor rights experts.
The two schemes - one for migrants from non-European Union nations to work on Britain’s farms for six months and another for workers from “low-risk” countries to stay for a year - could create expendable workforces prey to abuse, campaigners said.
From farms to hotels, European workers are key to the British economy, and the government is scrambling to ensure businesses have enough workers to fill the gap once Britain leaves the European Union and free movement of people ends.
While the nature and date of Britain’s departure is up in the air, charities and activists say that the interior ministry and anti-slavery agency may struggle to protect migrant workers.
Upfront visa and travel costs under the two schemes could leave short-term migrant workers vulnerable to debt bondage, while a lack of access to public funds could trap them in abusive workplaces, said Focus on Labor Exploitation (FLEX).
“There is a clear contradiction between Britain’s efforts to tackle modern slavery and its rush to bring in workers post-Brexit,” said Caroline Robinson, director of the charity.
“These short-term, rapid solutions will do massive damage to the government’s claim of being the world leader in tackling modern slavery,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Without access to housing and unemployment benefits, migrant workers arriving under the schemes could struggle to leave abusive employers, or end up destitute and homeless, increasing their risk of being trafficked, FLEX said in a recent report.
The two schemes could fuel a “continuous churn of low waged workers with limited access to support or rights,” it said.
The government has acknowledged the risk of abuses under the farm scheme - a pilot that will see 2,500 workers from Moldova, Russia and Ukraine arrive in the coming months - but activists said it has not outlined how it would address these concerns.
A spokesman for the Home Office (interior ministry) said it would continue to work closely with stakeholders across the country on the future “skills-based immigration system”.
“This includes consideration of how we will best protect against exploitation and other safeguarding issues,” he said, without giving any further details.
Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain is undergoing a review of its landmark 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive firms to stop forced labor or help victims.
Brexit could hamper Britain’s anti-trafficking efforts in myriad ways - from European law enforcement cooperation to child trafficking from France - according to the police and activists.
Britain’s Gangmasters and Labor Abuse Authority (GLAA), the nation’s anti-slavery agency, said it was working with labor providers to address growing concerns about staff shortages.
About 15 percent of low-skilled workers in Britain come from EU nations, at least 500,000 people, according to a 2018 report by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.
Farmers have raised alarm over a lack of workers to harvest fruit and vegetables and say crops are rotting in the fields, while hospitality companies have voiced concerns about a staffing crunch with little interest from British job seekers.
“Brexit will potentially present some challenges in terms of there being more scope for labor exploitation,” said Michael Rich, head of the GLAA, which gained police-style powers in 2017 and a wider remit to probe labor offences across the economy.
“So we need to be more on our guard,” he said, adding that the GLAA was looking closely at the seasonal farm workers pilot.
Charities including FLEX have called for measures such as a hotline for temporary migrant workers to report abuse, bilateral labor rights agreements with sending nations, and the licensing of labor providers to be extended beyond just agriculture.
Yet the GLAA’s broader scope and focus on tackling the most egregious cases of modern slavery has stretched the agency thin as the threat posed to temporary migrant workers by Brexit draws near, said Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).
“I’m worried that the GLAA will have less time and resources to work on prevention,” said Berman of the ETI, a coalition of trade unions, companies and charities promoting workers’ rights.
“We need beefed up labor inspections to ensure minimum wages, decent working hours and health and safety regulation,” she added, while also calling on businesses to improve their due diligence as they face growing scrutiny over labor practices.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013.
At least 7,000 suspected victims of slavery were uncovered in Britain last year, up a third on 2017, according to data that activists said last month raised concerns about the government’s ability to support a growing number of survivors.
Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org