UK Immigration Act 2016: challenges ahead for efforts to tackle labour exploitation

Blog18 May 2016

On Friday 13th May the Government’s new Immigration Act became law. Since the Bill was first proposed by the Prime Minister one year ago, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) has been leading efforts to influence Part One on labour market enforcement and exploitation.  FLEX’s work ensured a strong emphasis on the needs of vulnerable and exploited workers as the Bill made its way through Parliament. However, the resulting Act continues to present serious challenges to those seeking to end slavery and exploitation in the UK.

Firstly, whilst FLEX welcomes the new Director of Labour Market Enforcement established in the Act, we have serious concerns about the focus of the role. This new Director will be tasked with bringing together three of the UK’s main labour inspection authorities: HM Revenue and Customs national minimum wage enforcement teams, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and the new Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.  However, throughout the Immigration Bill debate we cautioned that unless the Director has a clear mandate to protect victims of exploitation then their work could easily stray in to areas that might do more to harm than good for vulnerable workers, particularly immigration enforcement activity.

The Act also proposes major amendments to the way the current Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) operates. The new Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority set out in the Act will work not just on food and food processing but will shift its attention to different labour sectors according to risk – as dictated by the new Director. Whilst FLEX has called for the expansion of the GLA for some time, we have always emphasised that this should be done on a sector by sector basis so that the authority has the time and resources required to build expertise to have an impact in new areas. The GLA is set to transform from its current structure to a labour market wide inspectorate with extra police style powers by 1st October 2016. This is just four months away, and yet the Government has still not set the GLA’s budget for 2016/17 so this change is being planned on the existing shoestring GLA budget. The next months will be critical for the GLA, to ensure that existing expertise is not lost as it transforms into a labour market wide authority.

Finally FLEX strongly believes that the offence of illegal working set out in the Immigration Act will both prevent victims of human trafficking from coming forward and in some cases could promote exploitation. From interviews with victims of exploitation, we know that the main priority for those without immigration status is to secure the right to remain in the UK to be able to send back the money they promised their families when they left home. This new offence will make people so fearful of having money taken from them, being imprisoned and removed from the UK, that they will be less likely to take the gamble required to alert authorities to exploitation. For their part, traffickers will also seize on this new offence to use it as yet another way of controlling people in situations of severe exploitation. FLEX continues to call on the Government to conduct an urgent review of the impact of this offence on victims of modern slavery. 

Many of these measures will enter in to force on 1st October 2016. FLEX will continue to lead the way in calling for the rights of vulnerable workers to be respected in order to prevent exploitation. This means a Director of Labour Market Enforcement that prioritises vulnerable workers and victims of exploitation. It also requires the new Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to build a clear strategy to develop expertise on the new labour sectors that they will cover and engage experts, charities, trade unions and migrant community organisations, in this task. Perhaps most importantly, the time is up for the Government to declare how much they value strong labour market enforcement and provide the resources required for the new Director and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to truly protect vulnerable workers from abuse.