Here, Harry Sanders from the Immigration Advice Service explains how Brexit is poised to worsen the existence of modern slavery in the UK
Slavery is often believed to have died its death long ago, with the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade locked safely away in our distant past. However, this misconception could not lie further from the truth. Human trafficking and exploitative labour now underpin many facets of our everyday lives – from the food that we eat to the recyclable plastic that covers it, and beyond – without our knowledge.
Brexit is set to change our immigration system, but what change will this bring for migrants already trafficked to the UK or exploited for their labour, and what could be done to ensure their safety from slavery?
Modern Slavery Act falls flat
Many promises have been made to eradicate modern slavery. In 2015 the UK passed the Modern Slavery Act, which requires companies to report on the presence of slavery in their supply chains. Just last year, Theresa May announced a £33 million fund and a specialised task force that would crackdown on illegal labour exploitation.
These promises, however, were empty. The government’s own “hostile environment” towards immigration policies have severely limited the effectiveness of anti-slavery programs. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has found that in the four years since the Modern Slavery Act entered UK law, the act has “failed to deliver the transformational change” which it promised.
Slavery has in fact been on the rise in the UK, with 2,255 modern slavery offences recorded across England & Wales in 2017 – a 159% increase on the previous year.
The proximity of these cases to our own lives is disturbing. In 2016 a “slave workforce” was uncovered at the Kozee Sleep factory in Dewsbury. Paying his workers a meagre £10 a week and forcing them to live in squalor, Mohammed Rafiq became the first businessman in the UK to be imprisoned for human trafficking offences. John Lewis and Next – two of the big names supplied by Kozee Sleep – hadn’t reported any issues in their supply chains.
More recently, police broke up the UK’s largest modern slave ring after a four-year investigation this July. Roughly 400 Polish workers trafficked into the country were freed. Some of these victims were found by the Sunday Times to have been employed by suppliers of many companies we consider household names (such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Homebase and others).
Highlighting the ineffectiveness of the Modern Slavery Act, Tesco and Sainsbury’s were awarded first and second place in Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign for their compliance with human rights.
Migrants targeted for slavery
While Britons have also been amongst the victims of such trafficking rings, migrants especially are more common targets.
In the UK, asylum seekers are banned from working until their claim is successful and they receive Refugee Status. As this process often takes months or even years to complete, migrants are forced to seek cash-in-hand work out of desperation. The government’s threat of detainment or deportation further deters the majority of these migrants from complaining about their circumstances to local authorities.
British immigration policies leave vulnerable migrants with no choice other than to accept awful work and living conditions. Individuals such as Mohammed Rafiq are then free to prey on this vulnerability by paying workers less than minimum wage, where they even confiscate their ID cards or papers to exploit them every further.
As appalling as this is, matters are only to be made worse by Brexit.
Post-Brexit rules to increase slavery
Freedom of Movement has its pros and its cons. It is true that it has allowed gangmasters in the UK to easily exploit workers from Eastern Europe. According to a 2018 report by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, an estimated 15% of low-skilled workers in Britain (roughly 500,000) come from the EU. The ring which trafficked and exploited 400 Polish victims is damning evidence of just this.
Despite this, a report by the Social Market Foundation has found that putting an end to Freedom of Movement will only increase the number of cases of modern slavery and trafficking. Claims made in the build-up to the 2016 referendum that the UK’s immigration concerns would be resolved are now known to be unrealistic and false. As legal migration routes close and UK businesses suffer from vast workforce shortages in the face of diluted access to talent pools, it is expected that human trafficking and exploitative labour will increase to fill the void.
Most upsettingly is the fact that EU citizens brought illegally into the UK would have even less rights than they do today. The protection of the most vulnerable in our society that was promised by May and the Modern Slavery Act will most likely not materialise for these victims.
Temporary visa schemes vulnerable to exploitation
Temporary Visa schemes are also set to increase the exploitation of migrants post-Brexit, particularly the Seasonal Agricultural scheme which is currently being piloted.
There are many problems with such schemes. Most notably, they leave the applicant tied to a single employer and unable to change their situation. They are unable to bring family to the UK or use their year placement towards settlement such as British citizenship years down the line. As a result, employers are able to threaten unsatisfied workers with deportation if they do not accept their exploitative working conditions. Workers could be left underpaid, and also be led into a debt to their employers.
If Brexit is to happen, Boris Johnson’s government must find solutions found to these problems. One proposed answer is to give amnesty to 1 million illegal immigrants already living in the UK. This would help migrants escape their exploitative circumstances but would also boost the economy by putting more people in work, and thereby increasing tax revenue for the country. Anti-slavery charity, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) has also advocated for enshrining the protection of all workers’ rights in law, as well as giving temporary migrant workers the right to seek a different employer if they are being exploited.
The safety of migrants in the UK is already bleak, though Brexit casts an even more ominous shadow over their futures. If Brexit is to be the glorious historical moment that Johnson, Farage and their supporters claim it will be, action must be taken to ensure that Britain does not develop into a bigger haven of modern slavery than it already is.