Where are the workers coming from? A simple question to improve lives and reduce modern slavery

Tuesday 25th May, 2021

Mark Heath is former Deputy Director at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority where he led on prevention and partnerships, developing close working relationships with the public, private and third sectors. In this guest article for Marshalls he takes a look at a growing concern that a reduction of labour supply from the EU will lead to a rise in modern slavery in the UK.

How many times within business or securing the services of someone to work for us on a project at home do we ask ourselves, where are the workers coming from? Over recent years I think we have become better at understanding how the workforce within the UK comprises many different nationalities and cultures, many argue that we have benefitted from it and it has helped the economy to grow.

Many also argue that it is a question that has not been asked often enough, putting labour supply chains at an increased risk of exploitative practices and, in some sectors, allowing modern slavery to get a foothold in both formal and informal economies. With the year on year increase in the number of victims of modern slavery within the UK being identified, with a levelling off in 2020 being attributed to the Covid pandemic, it is clear that we can no longer say, if indeed we ever could, that it doesn’t happen in the UK. It can happen within any supply chain at any time.

The importance of asking where workers are coming from

Asking the question is more important now, than ever before. Whatever your view is on Brexit and the potential impacts on the UK economy, one thing which is clear is that the migration of workers into the UK to fulfil what are referred to as ‘low skilled roles’ is going to change significantly. Changes introduced by the Immigration Act 2020 will mean that from 1 July 2021 the pool of labour available within the UK will not be given the freedom enjoyed by EU workers in previous years, where they were able to move here for work with no need for an immigration “status”, work permit or visa.

Whether you hold the view that this is a good or bad consequence of the UK leaving the European Union, the fact remains that the freedom for EU workers to enter the UK jobs market has provided ready access to a flow of workers to meet the needs of many sectors. What is less certain is the impact that these changes will have.

Growing concerns over a potential rise in modern slavery due to a reduced labour supply from the EU

Early findings in a De Montfort University research project suggests that those who are involved in the supply and use of workers in what are, often mistakenly, seen as low skilled roles are worried that labour shortages are to be expected and that a burden upon what will be a decreasing pool of workers will be created. In simple terms, it is feared that there will not be enough workers to go around and that labour costs will increase.

Some sectors are already reporting that requests for agency labour are not being met owing to the lack of availability, with one saying that the agency can only meet ten percent of its need. There is a concern that any shortage will not be filled by the workforce that is available within the UK and many of the roles will not be suitable for automated processes.

In addition, there is a concern that the opportunities for exploitation of workers, to include modern slavery, will increase. As one contributor to the research suggested, “there will be no shortage of workers but there might be a shortage of legal ones”. The exploiter will always look for the opportunity to exploit and if there is a drive to get the job done, whatever the cost, coupled with an availability of people who do not have the right to work in the UK but are already here, the risk will increase. Exploited workers can be introduced into legitimate supply chains without the knowledge of the business using them, making it even more important to conduct the relevant checks. As another contributor to the research suggested, “we are creating a good environment for bad things to happen.”

Steps businesses can take to reduce the likelihood of modern slavery in their supply chain

Strong and visible leadership is vital. Taking a stance against modern slavery should be a given, doing something about it and taking practical steps is another thing. It is too easy to rely on someone else to deal with this, it is complex and challenging in equal measure. With the risks of exploitation expected to increase by those working within this sector we cannot say we weren’t warned that there may be issues on the horizon, plans will need to be in place to ensure labour requirements can be met.

Labour exploitation is a wide term, ranging from modern slavery to other forms of mistreatment and labour abuse. It is also difficult to spot, with no hard of fast rules or a number of boxes which should be “ticked”. What is important is to remain vigilant.

As a business you should:

  • Seek to understand your labour supply chain.
  • Identify whether labour supply is subcontracted from other suppliers or through the shadow economy.
  • Introduce policies, processes and measures in relation to governance and contract management specific to your labour supply, then conduct the relevant checks.
  • Be proactive and ask questions.
  • Never rely solely on price as the determining factor for the award of a contract.
  • Take an interest in and speak to the workers.

Steps that individuals can take to contribute to the reduction of modern slavery

Good businesses will be doing all or most of the above, but that does not mean that individuals can’t accelerate action too. As an individual, look for any signs such as:

  • Workers appearing unkempt or inappropriately dressed for the job.
  • Workers showing physical signs of abuse.
  • Workers being reluctant to engage with others and with one speaking for all.
  • Workers being malnourished or excessively tired.
  • Workers appearing to be in fear or under the excessive control of the supervisor/boss.
  • A demand for payment in cash, remember if an offer seems too good to be true it usually is.

In a policy statement released in February 2020 the Government stated that “we remain committed to protecting individuals from exploitation by criminal traffickers and unscrupulous employers.” Time will tell whether the changes have the desired impact, if worker exploitation is seen to diminish and whether there are labour shortages.

Those who are expecting an increase in exploitation may be wrong. In order to prove that, to help protect your business and most importantly protect vulnerable people it is more important than ever to ask, where are the workers coming from.

Further reading from Marshalls

Article: How to join the fight against modern slavery in the construction sector.

Article: Keeping Human Rights on track during the Covid Pandemic

Reports: Marshalls Modern Slavery library.

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