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Evaluating the risk of labour exploitation among migrant workers in the UK during Covid-19

Labour exploitation is the most frequently reported form of exploitation in the UK and the majority of cases identified involve migrant workers. According to the 2019 National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the system of support for victims and survivors of modern slavery, the top three EU nationalities reporting labour exploitation in the UK were Romanians, Polish and Bulgarians. 

Temporary migration programmes tend to be exploitative (Lenard and Straehle, 2012; Strauss and McGrath, 2017) and migrant workers often work in low-paid and flexible jobs, and are less likely to be members of trade unions than non-migrant workers (Turner et al., 2014). Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns were heightened and amplified regarding the well-being and safety of migrant and seasonal workers, across the world, from Canada to Germany and Australia.

In early 2021 we conducted a survey with approximately 450 Romanian and Bulgarian workers, employed mainly in the British agri-food industry, and 28 interviews with industry stakeholders, including businesses, NGOs and public authorities. Although many workers reported that they had good working conditions, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated several key challenges for both workers and businesses:

  1. Reduced Income

Many workers had experienced a reduced income, due to redundancies, reduced working hours, being placed on furlough schemes that were not topped up by employers or having to rely on statutory sick pay of approximately £95 a week. The impact of a reduced income translated into 25% of our sample reporting that they struggled to pay rent, 18% borrowing money from friends or banks, and 4% accessing food banks. The impact of Covid-19 on income reduction may therefore mean that many workers are carrying a hangover of debt.

  1. Overworking of reduced workforce

In certain industries, where production increased or some workers were furloughed, the remaining active workforce experienced additional pressures to meet targets and work overtime. 9% of those surveyed reported that they were not allowed to take breaks at work and 21% reported working overtime.

  1. Employment deception and financial exploitation

During the pandemic, our interviewees identified a significant increase in the number of people who were led to believe they had a job secured in the UK, only to later discover after they paid a fee and travelled to the UK, that those jobs did not actually exist. This organised criminal deception represents a worrying trend, given tighter visa restrictions following Brexit, which may encourage workers without employment to seek jobs in the informal economy, with a higher risk of exploitative conditions.

Businesses faced several challenges too. One immediate consequence of Covid-19 was the high costs incurred by businesses for purchasing PPE and putting in place new procedures and guidelines, ranging from new health and safety protocols to new audit report systems. Information sharing and collaborations across industries were necessary to close the gaps in guidance received from the UK government. Second, while audits into supply chains have continued, these were undertaken remotely which limited businesses’ oversight of their suppliers. UK labour inspectorate the GLAA also suspended most of its face-to-face inspections during lockdown and conducted online or telephone inspections instead.

"Pro-Force and the National Farmers Union estimate a need of 40,000 to 70,000 workers, depending on whether workers stay for the whole season and whether they are flexible in the type of seasonal work they will do."
Dr Oana Burcu

Concerns over seasonal labour shortages and incomplete work were prominent in our interviews with businesses. For example, during the pandemic, one business explained that while they were prepared to organise and cover the transport of workers from their home country to the UK, some workers only stayed in their jobs for a limited amount of time before moving on to another role, making this type of sponsorship uneconomic. Moreover, when Christmas approached and the Covid-19 restrictions intensified in the UK, some workers had been concerned about being stuck in the UK during the holidays and decided to leave earlier, without fulfilling their contracts.

While so far, some of those furloughed or made redundant in the hospitality industry have occupied the jobs available in agri-food industry, concerns over labour shortage continue in the light of Brexit and the likely competition once restrictions are relaxed and hospitality reopens. For example, the new seasonal work programme allows 30,000 seasonal workers access to temporary visas to work in in edible horticulture, however, employment provider Pro-Force and the National Farmers Union estimate a need of 40,000 to 70,000 workers, depending on whether workers stay for the whole season and whether they are flexible in the type of seasonal work they will do. The failure of the Pick for Britain campaign indicates that it is unlikely that a similar campaign will make up for the deficit. At the same time, non-edible horticulture faces its own separate challenges in terms of potential labour shortage.

In summary, the lack of clarity over the extent of the UK’s reliance on migrant workers, plus economic difficulties triggered by Covid, and the learning curve faced by both workers and farmers working with new Brexit-related migration restrictions, creates what one of our interviewees termed ‘a perfect storm’, which may create new opportunities for organised crime and increased vulnerability to exploitation. As one business put it, it may be that “we will not run out of people, we will run out of legal people”.

The full report can be accessed here.

Dr Oana Burcu

Dr Oana Burcu is a Research Fellow in human trafficking and migration in the Rights Lab Beacon of Excellence and School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.

Institute for Policy and Engagement

This blog appears as part of the series from the Institute for Policy and Engagement on the university’s ongoing research contribution to the Covid-19 effort.

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