New report exposes risks for undocumented UK workers

A new report exposes the routine risks experienced by undocumented migrant workers in the UK; two-thirds of those surveyed experienced injuries whilst working.

Dr Jon Burnett is a researcher who previously worked at Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS), and Dr David Whyte is a Reader in Sociology at the University of Liverpool; today they have published a report, “The Wages of Fear” (pdf), which exposes the routine risks experienced by undocumented migrant workers in the UK

Mohammed came to Britain seeking asylum from Sudan three years ago. In 2008, destitute and with his asylum application refused, he was forced to work illegally as a kitchen porter earning £2.50 an hour. One day at work he was seriously scalded when a pan of boiling water was spilled over his arm. He requested that an ambulance be called, but his employer refused.

Instead, his fellow workers bandaged his arm. Mohammed couldn’t use his arm for eight weeks afterwards and when he returned to work, his employer told him that he had been replaced and could not have his old job back.

Mohammad’s story is not unique. We heard numerous first-hand accounts of workers who either refused to call emergency services because they were too fearful of being discovered by the authorities or were prevented from calling emergency services by their employer.

One person severed a finger to the point that it was hanging off at the joint; another had his legs crushed after a fridge freezer had fallen on him; one experienced chemical burns; and another was severely burned on his face by hot cooking oil.

Two-thirds of the undocumented workers interviewed had experienced injuries whilst working. Almost all of the workers interviewed had either experienced or witnessed a serious injury caused by work. The story of the daily risks taken by undocumented workers in Britain is a story that is rarely told.

Under UK law all workers, regardless of their legal status, have the right to safety protection at work. All workers, whether they have permission to work or not, are protected by the Health and Safety at Work Act. The government regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is also responsible for ensuring the safety of undocumented workers.

However, already overstretched to capacity, it is unable to provide this function. At the same time, immigration raids on workplaces continue to rise and prosecutions of employers for violating immigration law have increased five-fold in the past two years.

Many of the people in the study are refused asylum seekers and all were either on quickly diminishing section 4 support or were destitute. Our research exposes the cruel irony of a set of policies which forces asylum seekers into abject poverty and exposes them to very high risks of injury if they try and work to escape destitution.

It is the immigration clampdown and the likelihood of deportation that prevents workers contacting the emergency services or from seeking treatment. It is this same clampdown that enables employers to force wages and conditions down to the most intolerable levels. In other words, the legal protections given to all workers are effectively eradicated by intensifying immigration raids and deportations.

• Dowload the report, “The Wages of Fear” (pdf).

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.