Migrants subject to forced labour in the UK

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date: Thursday 3 February 2005

embargo: For immediate release

Attention: industrial; social affairs

Migrant workers in the UK, including those with the right to work here, are subject to such levels of exploitation and control that they meet the international legal definition of ‘forced labour’, according to a report by independent researchers published by the TUC today (Thursday).

The TUC argues that migrant workers should benefit from the same rights that apply to every other worker in the UK, and is calling on the government to put much more emphasis on cracking down on employers who break employment law in its 'managed migration' policies.

People trafficking in the sex trade, and the exploitation of workers with no legal right to work - such as the Morecambe cockle pickers who were drowned a year ago on Saturday - has been exposed before. But this report reveals that migrants who can legally work in this country are also shockingly badly exploited because they are unable to enforce their legal rights because of the power their employer has over them:

§ people here on a work permit can be deported if they lose their job, and employers can sack them if they complain (see case study 1)

§ people may be dependent on their employer for accommodation or work (see case study 2)

§ employers may hold passports (see case study 3)

§ people may owe their employer for loans taken out to finance their travel or other arrangements (see case study 4)

§ employers can intimidate and threaten staff who do not know their rights, have little or poor English language skills and have no access to alternative support. (see case study 5)

The report, ‘Forced Labour and Migration to the UK’ reveals abuse, including very long hours, pay below the minimum wage and dangerous working conditions in a range of sectors including construction, hospitality, agriculture, food processing, horticulture, contract cleaning, nursing and care homes.

Employers and agencies who break the law are rarely prosecuted or even inspected by the authorities. Indeed the report finds employers using the threat of immigration authorities against migrant workers.

The International Labour Organisation identifies the following factors that indicate forced labour. Examples of each are given in the report:

1) Threats or actual physical harm to the worker.

2) Restriction of movement and confinement, to the workplace or to a limited area.

3) Debt bondage: where the worker works to pay off a debt or loan, and is not paid for his or her services. The employer may provide food and accommodation at such inflated prices that the worker cannot escape the debt.

4) Withholding of wages or excessive wage reductions, that violate previously made agreements.

5) Retention of passports and identity documents, so that the worker cannot leave, or prove his/her identity and status.

6) Threat of denunciation to the authorities, where the worker is in an irregular immigration status.

The TUC is calling for employees here on a work permit to have more rights to report abuse and change employer, and that employers guilty of abuses should lose the right to apply for work permits for their staff. While recognising that the forthcoming gangmasters licensing scheme will reduce the scope for abuse in parts of the food sector, the report calls for more scrutiny of agencies operating in other sectors. Workers subjected to forced labour need the means to complain of abusive employers, and protections when they do so, and organisations such as unions should be granted stronger rights to pursue claims on their behalf.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Tomorrow we will remember the Morecambe Bay tragedy. The government has taken action since then, and we welcome the Gangmasters Bill. But this report shows that more needs to be done. The precarious position of those who have no legal basis to work here is well known, but what this report shows is just how much people with every legal right to hold a job can also be so badly exploited that they must count as forced labour.'

Case studies taken from the report

case study one - work permits

Three nationals of South Asian countries who entered on legal permits to work for an employer in the manufacturing industry were threatened with violence when they refused to accept their working conditions. They were required to work 12-hour shifts from Monday to Friday and a 9-hour shift at the weekend followed every day by cleaning the employer’s private residence. Their employer refused to negotiate and threatened to deport them. When they eventually managed to escape from him he contacted the Immigration Service to inform them that they were in the UK without work permits.

case study two - accommodation

A Filipina who had been told by her aunt, a UK resident, that she would be able to work legally. She sponsored her, guaranteeing to support and accommodate her. On arrival however the young woman was forced to work as a contract cleaner, using her aunt’s name and National Insurance number. Her pay was being paid into her aunt’s bank account and she was receiving no money from her aunt at all. She was only allowed out to work and was kept deliberately isolated. As well as her night cleaning job she had to perform all the domestic work in her aunt’s house and look after the young baby during the day

case study three - holding passports

'My employer kept my passport. He kept it in an attaché case, locked. I never tried to get it. The first year we came here, one colleague jumped and they started to hide our passports in case we jumped too. They thought I would be too scared to jump without my passport but it didn’t work. When I left I was worried about not having a passport. After two months, my solicitor sent a fax to my employers and asked for my passport. There were seven of us who jumped. I was the only one who got it. The others were too afraid to ask for it back as the employer said we had stolen from them and that they had hired police to search London.'

case study four - debt bondage

One woman had borrowed US$1,000 for her trip and had not yet managed to pay this off, despite being in the UK for nearly 4 years. She is currently paid £2 an hour to work in a chip shop for 12 hours a day. From Monday to Saturday she lives on the chips, but on Sunday must pay for her food. Sometimes she works as a barmaid with no pay but for a free meal.

case study five - intimidation

A group of Eastern Europeans were brought to the UK by a gang to work illegally in a factory. They were originally informed that they would be working with permits, but en route were given false British passports. When they realized that they would be in the UK illegally they attempted to leave the gang’s control, but were threatened so seriously that they were forced to continue. On arrival they were informed of their conditions: that they must work seven days a week for one year with no pay because they needed to repay their 'debt' incurred for various expenses, including those related to migrating to the UK. Their salaries were transferred into the bank account of a gang member. They were watched very carefully, moved from house to house, and kept isolated. If they broke any conditions - if they spoke to anyone for example - they were fined and this was all noted down in a book and added to their 'debt'. Control was maintained by beatings and physical assault.


A copy of ‘Forced Labour and Migration to the UK’ is available at www.tuc.org.uk/extras/ForcedLabour.doc

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