In a report published today, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) and the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) have reported that uncertainty around rights and status in the UK is leading many EU workers to suffer labour abuses and even exploitation, as employers are taking advantage of people’s fear of losing their status and their jobs as a result of Brexit. The report, Lost in Transition: Brexit and Labour Exploitation, details the key risks Brexit poses to workers both now and in the long term, as workers’ rights, protections for victims of modern slavery and the entitlements of EU workers in the UK all come under threat.
In the absence of clear information from the government, EU workers are being told by bosses, colleagues and others “you are not a legal worker anymore.” Community support organisations are receiving many calls for advice from anxious migrant workers who are being told that soon they will become ‘illegal’ and will be deported. Unscrupulous employers who are aware of the dependence of workers on insecure, low-paid work, have taken advantage of uncertainty and rumour, piling on work and refusing to pay wages owed. One woman reported since the Brexit vote she had been given a much higher workload which led her to work extra hours without pay. Her employer told her she should ‘behave’ now, because she is European. Another group of Polish workers were dismissed and told that they wouldn’t be paid for the work they had done, because they were ‘Poles’.
In the report members of the LEAG highlight the dangers of restricted immigration post-Brexit, which will make EU workers much more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation as a result of their status. Insecure immigration status has long been a tool of traffickers and exploiters, who use the threat of criminalisation and deportation to hold workers in situations of exploitation and forced labour.
Many industries in the UK rely on an EU migrant workforce, and will continue to require these workers after the UK leaves the EU. Potential work visa and permit schemes designed to facilitate a continued supply of labour to these industries is another key area of risk for exploitation. Previous models – for example those tying workers to one employer for the duration of their stay – have been shown to lead to abuse and in some cases severe exploitation and slavery. The report details case examples from the UK and other countries and stresses the need for these lessons to be learned in order that future workers entering the UK are not put at risk by restrictions and lack of protections inherent in the permit schemes.
The National Crime Agency has recently warned that numbers of victims of modern slavery in the UK are likely much higher than previously thought. The Prime Minister Theresa May has claimed that the UK will ‘lead the way’ on eradicating modern slavery, and has dedicated millions in special funds to improve the police response to these crimes. However, if the government is serious about tackling labour exploitation then it must look to the root causes, and take urgent action to address the increased risks that the Brexit process poses to workers, from providing clear information to ensuring robust protections and enforcement of rights for all workers. Close attention must be paid to the vulnerabilities created by restrictive immigration policy and labour migration schemes, and community support organisations must be equipped to respond to the huge uplift in demand for their services. The future may be uncertain, but the message is clear: if we want to end exploitation, we must get real about the impact of Brexit on vulnerable workers.
Download the full report Lost in Transition: Brexit and Labour Exploitation here.