Scapegoating migrant workers in the UK

30/09/2016

Explaining the UK Conservative Government’s decision to appoint a Director of Labour Market Enforcement in 2016 the former Immigration Minister James Brokenshire declared: ‘Exploiting or coercing people into work is not acceptable. It is not right that unscrupulous employers can force people to work or live in very poor conditions, withhold wages or mislead them into coming to the UK for work’. What could possibly be wrong with the government’s determination to crack down on serious exploitation of workers by appointing a new Director who will oversee the relevant enforcement agencies? But, once the new Director of Labour Market Enforcement is placed in context, it is clear that this initiative is a classic bait and switch ploy. Instead of developing strategies to enforce labour standards, the UK government is bent on blaming undocumented migrant workers for the low pay and poor working conditions that too many employees in the UK endure.

The Director of Labour Enforcement is part of the Immigration Act 2016, which is designed to make it harder for people to live and work illegally in the UK and to impose tougher penalties and sanctions on rogue employers who exploit illegal migrants. This Act makes illegal working a criminal offence, with a maximum custodial sentence of six months and an unlimited fine. It also provides that the workers’ wages can be seized. Punishments for employers who employ migrant workers without proper authorization to work in the UK have been increased and businesses that employ such workers can be closed down. The UK’s Conservative government points to an increase in organized criminal activity engaging in labour market exploitation and illegal workers as the cause of the problem of low-paid, insecure and precarious work in the UK.

Although the government uses the Immigration Act 2016 to vilify illegal workers and criminal employers as the cause of the problem of labour exploitation, it also gestures towards enforcing employment standards by expanding the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which until October 2016 licensed labour contractors in specified industries with a history of abusive labour practices. The Director is supposed to provide strategic direction for the organisations responsible for regulating the UK labour market and together with these enforcement bodies will work closely with immigration officials, whose mandate is to find, punish and deport people working in breach of their visa conditions. The renamed Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) will be given additional powers, enabling it to investigate abuse allegations across the entire UK labour market. The GLAA will also be conducting joint operations with the UK Border Force, which enforces immigration controls. This intermingling of the enforcement of labour standards and immigration controls will inevitably undermine the ability of the Director and the GLAA to enforce labour standards.

Undocumented workers who are at risk of labour exploitation will be unwilling to come forward to report violations of labour standards if they fear that they will be penalized for ‘illegal working’. For this reason, organizations as diverse as the International Labour Organization, the Council of Europe, and the US Department of Labor agree that it is critical to erect a firewall between the enforcement of labour standards and immigration controls.

The UK government’s enforcement strategy assumes that: there is already an effective system of labour enforcement in place in the UK; the vast majority of employers adhere to labour standards; and the key problem is one of organized labour market exploitation. Although the government claims that the UK has a strong legal framework in place to ensure that minimum standards are met for workers, nothing could be further from the truth.

The UK has one of the smallest labour inspectorates in Europe with just 0.9 labour inspectors per 100,000 members of the workforce compared with 4.6 in Ireland, 5.1 in the  Netherlands, 12.5 in Belgium and 18.9 in France. Moreover, under the guise of austerity, labour inspection agencies have seen steep declines in budgets – including more than 20% cut to the GLA. The turn towards criminal investigation is likely to absorb huge resources and distract from the GLAA’s core licensing and monitoring functions.

Zero-hours contracts, agency working, and bogus self-employment abound in the UK labour market, and with it low-paid and insecure employment. Even with such light-touch regulation, still far too many UK employers ignore basic labour rights. Although there is little evidence that labour exploitation is caused by organized criminal gangs, by focusing on organized crime as the cause of labour exploitation the government normalizes the poor working conditions of 4.5 million people (14% of the labour force) in England and Wales who are employed in insecure and low paying job.

If the UK government truly wants to crack down on the violation of employment standards and labour exploitation, it needs to stop picking on the weak and vulnerable, such as migrant workers, and to hold employers to account for bad employment practices. Effectively regulating the UK labour market is the only way to stop labour exploitation. Ensuring that irregular migration status does not undermine either entitlement to or enforcement of labour rights is a first step. Regulating sectors like hospitality, agriculture and construction that either have poor labour standards or inadequate enforcement will help both national and migrant workers. Moreover, protecting, rather than excluding, should be a central plank in very trade union agenda.

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