Migrant Rights’ Network of the UK: The Elephant in the Workplace – Why it’s time we talked about migration and labour exploitation

by , under Migrant Tales





Dr Sam Scott*

Certainly, it is rare for evidence of worker mistreatment to come to the fore but this does not mean, in our opinion, that it is ipso facto rare. Partly, the challenge is one of identifying workplace exploitation and persuading victims to come forward with evidence. Partly, it is about how as a society we define workplace exploitation, how it is legislated against, and how this legislation is policed. 

Trade Union membership is as low today as it was in the 1940s. Amidst the various worker protests against austerity measures, it has tended to be white-collar professionals, principally in the public services, who have been able to exert collective will, via union or professional group membership, in an attempt to protect eroding rights. Those in vulnerable employment in the UK – an estimated 2 million workers according to the TUC – do not to join unions in the main and so struggle to protect themselves from exploitative employers.

The cleaners, farm workers, production line operatives, au pairs, domestic servants, car washers, waiters and waitresses, the list could go on, are largely cast adrift, atomised and struggling to carve out a living at the bottom of the UK labour market. Their labour is not on the label, is not even evident when we look behind the label, and, in fact, has largely been written out of the social history of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. The invisible hand of the market is now the low-wage worker and, interestingly, since the mid-1990s, this hand has become increasing migrant in origin.

New research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identifies this link between workplace exploitation and immigration via a case study of the UK food industry. Using evidence from 62 migrant workers (mainly Polish, Chinese, Latvian and Lithuanian) spread across five areas of the UK (London, Liverpool, South-West England, Lincolnshire and east-Central Scotland) the report highlights why migrants are at particular risk of exploitation. Specifically, it is their constrained economic circumstances, limited English, widespread use of tied housing, and reliance on gangmasters that renders migrants vulnerable to severe forms of exploitation: what we term ‘forced labour’.

If I had known English, I would have gone to find a new job, I would have looked for anything, but it was the beginning here and I really did not have any other options. (Sally, woman, 32, Polish)

What do we mean by forced labour? Well the JRF report identifies 14 ‘practices’ that we consider to be part of the forced labour crime (forced labour has been a criminal offence since 2009). Some of the most noteworthy practices are as follows:

  • Upfront fees/debt bondage­ – many migrants paid fees to gangmasters to travel to the UK and to secure work. This often indebted migrants and/or led them into exploitative work and housing.
  • Productivity targets and surveillance –  targets and monitoring gave workers little opportunity for social interaction at work. Pressure was intense: “It was completely crazy, rushing, shouting constantly … they can stand behind your back with a stopwatch and see how many chickens you are packing per minute … Here you are a robot, a machine.” (Izabela, woman, 44, Polish)
  • Non-/under-payment of wages – this was remarkably common, and migrants seemed unable to get back pay they were owed. A popular tactic was to deduct a few hours’ pay each week: “The boss was very, very stingy. When I worked ten hours, he would note it down as six or seven hours. Always a few hours less … Every week when the payday came, we had to argue with the boss … ”. (Li Xia, man, 42, Chinese)
  • Underwork/indebtedness – LMIs recruited even when work was scarce, because they charged workers fees for finding work, however limited, and/or for travel, accommodation and other bills. The more workers they had, the more charges they could levy; it could be in LMIs’ interests to provide workers with just enough hours to pay these charges. This left migrants with no spare money to escape their exploiters, furthering dependency.
  • Tied Accommodation – poor accommodation was often linked to exploitation. Interviewees talked of overcrowded (e.g. five people in one caravan), sub-standard, overpriced housing. “I was shocked … the caravan is for 5 people … One of the girls sleeps in the living room …” (Victoria, woman, 21, Bulgarian).

The research clearly shows that the bottom of the labour market can be a truly inhospitable place. Fear and a sense of powerlessness are pervasive and there is no collective union engagement to alleviate this and push for improvements, quite the contrary. The question then is whether we could do more to prevent forced labour and more to empower low-wage migrant workers in an attempt to halt any decline in workplace standards?

A starting point may be to think about why news headlines concerned with improving workers’ rights are so rare and why the issue of tackling workplace exploitation is so infrequently raised in policy speeches? Regrettably, it usually takes a shocking event – i.e. death at work – for people to take note. However, the reality for most victims is that forced labour is about everyday and often quite incremental forms of exploitation that only collectively and cumulatively combine to constitute a criminal act. The elephant in the workplace is not, in other words, as simple as might be implied when we glimpse its occasional monolithic shadow.

*Dr Sam Scott is an associate lecturer at the Department of Geography, University of Exeter. He has been researching international migration for the past decade and has published work on both skilled and low-wage labour migration, mainly from within the European Union. His latest research – with Professor Gary Craig (Wilbeforce Institute) and Dr Alistair Geddes (University of Dundee) – looks at experiences of forced labour in the UK food industry.

Read original story here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

  1. Justice Demon

    Just as a point of clarification, LMI stands for labour market intermediary.

    Although this article is based on research conducted in the UK, there are certain similarities with our experiences in Finland. Much of the campaigning done in the 1990s was about reducing the unhealthy dependency of migrant workers on their employers, or at least seeking to ensure that official systems do not become an instrument of that dependency.

    Problems of immigrant exploitation are often linked to one or another form of dependency, and not merely in employment. The immigration consequences of leaving an abusive spouse are also an area in which unhealthy dependency can be enforced by public policy.

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