Brexit will not stop the exploitation of migrant workers

"We must treat exploited workers are victims, not criminals"

One of Theresa May’s key assumptions since taking over the premiership has been that the outcome of the referendum means we need to abandon the free movement and secure a reduction of immigration from the continent.

In itself, this will not do anything to cut the demand for cheap labour which exists in sectors of our economy like agriculture and hospitality. Nor will it stop the serious exploitation of migrant workers from either the EU or wider world.

Instead, it will push all the problems of migrant worker abuse even further underground. It is likely we will see increases in trafficking and undocumented immigration. We already know that migrant workers without the legal right to work are the most vulnerable to exploitation. The Morecambe Bay cockling disaster in 2004 was one horrific example of how such undocumented migrants could be fatally exploited.

Today, the scale of the exploitation of migrant workers is already vastly underestimated. The GLAA (Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority), despite having only 67 staff covering the UK, directly intervened to support nearly 3,000 victims of exploitation in 2015-16. This is only scratching the surface. Migrant workers often have only basic English, virtually no knowledge of labour law and regulations and are wary of joining a trade union. On top of this, the seasonal and itinerant nature of their work means they often move jobs rather than report abuse or are not around to stand as witnesses for prosecution. Therefore, not only are workers from outside the UK inherently vulnerable to exploitation but enforcement is particularly difficult. As writer and journalist James Bloodworth found, “some of the companies felt that they could get away with whatever they wanted.” The problem is therefore massively underreported.

Theresa May’s intention to create “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants” has done nothing to help this and is being expanded to cover EU nationals. The Home Office’s current approach to immigration discourages even workers who are here legally from approaching the authorities which are supposed to protect them. For example, in the year after the referendum the government deported 5,301 EU nationals. When we consider that this number includes any EU national found sleeping rough, it becomes clear why many might feel wary of challenging their employer and facing unemployment, especially when many employers are providing accommodation to their workers. 

For those on the left, whatever our views about the effect of freedom of movement on wages, the need for action should be clear. Increased exploitation clashes with our basic beliefs about the rights of the worker. This is something we can and should be completely united in fighting.

The key question is how we get workers to come forward to report abuse and exploitation. Simply put, we need to separate immigration enforcement from the battle against exploitation. If we do not want to empower exploiters and create a growing underground labour market, the latter must be fought unconditional of a worker’s immigration status. The GLAA has already been criticised by Oxfam for sharing information with immigration enforcement agencies, severing that link would be a step in the right direction. Quite simply, we must treat exploited workers are victims, not criminals.

At the same time, we must remember that this issue is tied to the fact our economic model remains reliant on cheap labour. The only serious solution may be to move as far as possible away from such an economy, removing the demand for ultra-cheap labour and the profitability of exploitation.

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