How Brexit has led to a rise in the exploitation of migrant workers

'Exploited workers need politicians that see the links between Brexit, austerity and workers’ rights'


Benali Hamdache is Green Party migration and refugee support spokesperson

On the 1st May 2004 the A10 Countries joined the European Union. Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia all became members together, in the biggest expansion of the EU in history. Their ascension represented a fundamental reordering of European politics. The complete demolition of the Iron Curtain. 

Their entry forever changed the UK too. Drawn by a strong pound and job opportunities workers made a beeline to this country. Helped by the fewer restrictions placed on arrivals compared to other member states.

These decisions should be seen as a policy triumph. EU migrants contributed £20bn to the UK’s public finances between 2001 and 2011. Paying 12% more in tax than claimed in benefits. Adding to the public purse when Tory and Lib Dem austerity was devastating our services. 

Entire sectors of the economy were kept going by EU workers. Agriculture, hospitality, transport, social care and construction. Talented people helped build a thriving economy. One then tanked by reckless bankers. 

But we had had enough of experts. Government austerity was pinned upon migrants. Vote Leave won by a small margin. Freedom of movement ended.

That decision is fundamentally remaking our economy once again. Industries once staffed by EU workers are now being replaced by workers on visas from all over the world. EU citizens that had all the same rights and protections as UK workers are being replaced by vulnerable workers. Exploitation of workers is increasing and their employers are profiting.

Nearly a quarter of a million work related visas were issued in 2021, a 110% increase from 2020. It’s clear that the UK cannot get by without the help of migrants. Together with Covid labour shortages, we are left with fruit rotting in the fields, lorries without drivers and the NHS without enough staff. Voters were sold a lie that an end to immigration was possible. 

Missing from the referendum was any realistic discussion around the future of the workforce. Since the vote this government has been missing in action. Successive PMs were warned labour shortages were inevitable, but they didn’t act. As a result thousands of short term visas have had to be issued to prop up business.

Focus on Labour Exploitation has well documented the risks of these types of visas. Workers face being trapped in debt from upfront costs of being brought here. A lack of guaranteed hours. Huge barriers to changing jobs if the work isn’t what was represented. No recourse to public funds if things fall through. Workers all too frequently find themselves trapped in abusive workplaces with little alternative.

Disturbing stories are already hitting the media. Indonesian workers have been targetted with illegal recruitment fees of up to £5,000 to work one season in the UK. Similar schemes are popping up across Asia, with Nepali workers targeted in much the same way. These low paid workers end up saddled with unsustainable debt and trapped in debt bondage.

Agricultural workers have also faced miserable work conditions. Crowded accommodation, long hours, unreasonable expectations and dangerous work environments. Workers on short term visas have much less power to challenge than the EU workers that once filled these posts. 

Government legislation deliberately makes it so. If you lose your job you face deportation in 60 days without a new one. On a skilled visa, changing to a new job requires a minimum salary of £25,600 and an employer willing to take on the work of sponsoring you. Many workers on that visa are focusing on qualifying for indefinite leave to remain, and so wait out the 5 year requirement regardless of how bad the workplace is. These rules have a chilling effect and mean that migrant workers are far less likely to look to workplace tribunals or other legal avenues to challenge wrong doing. 

As ever with the Conservatives this government has handed all the power to employers and little to employees. Even when employers break the rules there is very frequently no action.

The International Labour Organization, the UN’s employment body, has long recommended that there should be 1 labour inspector per 10,000 workers. The UK has long not followed that recommendation. TUC calculated that in 2021 we were 1,797 inspectors short of that target.

Government austerity has also forced labour inspectors to move away from direct inspection of the workplace to providing guidance instead. Between 2003 and 2015 inspections by the Health and Safety Executive fell by 69% and prosecutions fell by 35%. It’s also estimated that 420,000 workers are currently paid under the legal minimum wage, with no consequence. 

The end result is a low regulation and a low enforcement culture that empowers rule breaking and underhand employers. Workers on zero hour contracts, with work visas and workers in the gig economy are all easy targets for exploitation. Meanwhile attacks on Trade Unions have weakened their ability to mobilise and galvanise vulnerable workers. The Tory anti worker agenda is clearly on display. 

It’s clear to me that we should see the Brexit project and austerity as the same ideological mission. Architects set out to deliver a mythical Singapore-on-Thames economic model. Small government and low regulation built on the back of exploited workers. It must be resisted. 

It is no wonder that many of the most prominent Brexit business backers have been linked to worker exploitation, anti trade union practices and breaches of EU anti-trust legislation. The vested interests behind Brexit make a mockery of any notion of a “Lexit”.

Change is coming. The government has been pressured into rethinking the under resourced variety of labour inspector bodies we have. A commitment has been made to deliver a better resourced single enforcement body to encourage compliance in the workplace. Margaret Beels was appointed as Director of Labour Market Enforcement with a view to combining the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the HMRC’s National Minimum Wage Team.

Equally the TUC have set on a much needed action plan for remedying the situation. Amongst the recommendations are:

  • A relaxation of the anti-trade union laws that keep unions out of workplaces and unable to promote membership.
  • A formal role for trade unions in labour inspection. 
  • Proper resourcing and staffing for our labour inspection bodies. 
  • Ending the close cooperation between immigration services and workplace inspectors, that mean migrant labourers fear reporting offences.

Exploited workers need politicians that see the links between Brexit, austerity and workers’ rights. For too long the main two parties have shied away from talking about the devastating impact of the hard right Brexit inflicted upon us by Boris Johnson and Lord Frost. That’s why I’m a Green and it’s why I’m proud of our platform of fighting for trade unions, workers’ rights, reversing austerity and working towards rejoining the EU. With rising support to rejoin and against austerity, the public is looking for that option at the ballot box. 

(Picture credit: Chiraljon: CreativeCommons)

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