How The UK Immigration System Exposes Vulnerable Migrants To Forced Labour

By Jack Beadsworth, Volunteer Writer 17 Dec 2019
A silhouette of a construction worker. Credit: Yury Kim / Pexels

While being “tough on immigration” has become popular within political rhetoric and policy, it is damaging the lives of many vulnerable migrants in the UK.

Policies aimed at restricting migrants’ rights have ripened the conditions for severe exploitation through forced labour.

By its very nature forced labour is hidden and discreet, and so statistics are difficult to obtain. People may come across a case of forced labour but have no clue about the worker’s harrowing reality. Such situations are inherently difficult for researchers to find and report on, so any statistics will likely be a conservative estimate of the number of victims.

The government’s annual report on modern slavery disappointingly makes no attempt to estimate the total number of forced labour victims, although it does mention a case in which 400 people were trafficked to the UK from Poland for forced labour by a criminal gang successfully prosecuted this year.

In 2014, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that there were between 3,000 to 5,000 people affected by forced labour.


Data on the number of reported victims of modern slavery may be of some use when determining whether forced labour is growing or falling. While forced labour differs from modern slavery in the sense that the latter is a more intense form of exploitation which involves the exercise of ownership, they both often appear in similar situations.

As forced labour can often be a precursor to modern slavery, it is likely that the 72 percent rise in modern slavery victims in 2018/19 means the number of forced labour victims is also increasing.

How The Immigration System Encourages Forced Labour

Sihouette of workers on a construction site. Image Credit: Pixabay.

While UK nationals are affected by forced labour, the vast majority of victims are migrants. The Morecambe Bay disaster, in which 21 undocumented Chinese migrants drowned in the sea while being forced to pick cockles, is a notable example.

As the UK’s immigration system is stratified – different types of migrants have different rights and responsibilities – not all types of migrants are affected in the same way. The people most at-risk people are asylum seekers, domestic workers, undocumented migrants, and low-skilled/temporary migrants, mainly from non-EU countries.

Though these different groups of migrants come to the UK through a variety of channels, they are all united by one key characteristic – their vulnerability. There a number of aspects of the UK’s immigration system, particularly with regards to non-EU migrants, that exacerbate this vulnerability and enhance opportunities for exploitation. Here are the five main areas of concern:

Employer-visa tie

For Tier 2 (often lower-skilled workers) and domestic worker visas, the right to enter and remain in the UK is dependent on being sponsored by an employer who will give them a job. Problematically, there is no meaningful right to change employer on these visas. Without the ability to change employer, migrants can become trapped in abusive situations.

The Rowntree Foundation has concluded that tying a person’s right to be in the UK legally to a particular employer creates opportunities for labour exploitation by disreputable employers and recruitment agencies.

Furthermore, a report by James Ewins QC, commissioned by the government, concluded that it is a “near unanimously held view that where immigration laws tie a migrant domestic worker’s status to a specific employer, the vulnerability of that worker to abuse…increases”. The report proposed scrapping the employer-visa tie and providing a universal right to change employer. Both proposals were ignored.

Lack of financial support

A major indicator of forced labour is “debt bondage” – a situation in which a worker is forced to pay off a debt to the employer by working for them under their complete control. This exploitative situation rarely concludes with the worker being graciously freed from their debt. Low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable to these conditions as they are unlikely to have savings in their home country and may need to receive “visa loans” from employers or recruitment agents to cover the expensive visa and travel costs.


The UK does not provide any assistance with visa costs beyond a very limited waiver fee. Image credit: Unsplash.

Despite the ILO linking the absence of financial services to the prevalence of debt bondage, the UK does not provide any assistance with visa costs beyond a very limited waiver fee. The UK has opted for the complete opposite approach.

In 2014, the Rowntree Foundation warned that restrictions around opening bank accounts could leave workers with no option but for their money to be held by their employer. The Immigration Act 2016, part the government’s “hostile environment”, went ahead anyway and placed restrictions on the ability of migrant’s to open bank accounts.

Combined with possible “visa loans’ this enables employer’s to control a migrant’s money (and, therefore, much of their freedom), make deductions from their wages at will, and trap migrants in a perpetual situation of fabricated debt.

‘Illegal work’

Section 34 of the Immigration Act 2016 makes it a criminal offence for an “illegal” immigrant to work in the UK. The criminalisation of work with subsequent deportation tightens an unscrupulous employer’s grip over vulnerable “illegal” migrants.

In this situation, people can be forced to work under the threat of being turned over to the immigration authorities for prosecution and/or deportation. This threat provides the ultimate tool of coercion to stop workers becoming “difficult” and organising to demand improved rights or conditions, as seen in the cases of Amey and Deliveroo.

Employers’ support for this policy has been criticised as a way of eliminating trade union organisation, as workers are too frightened to risk deportation by complaining about bad treatment. Without proper support networks and a lack of visa papers, coupled with threats and fear, some employers are able to deny migrants full pay for their work, and/or push them into deplorable working conditions.

How the UK's immigration system is exposing vulnerable migrants to forced labour

An image of a man washing a car. Image Credit: Pixabay.

I do understand that so-called “illegal” migration is a controversial policy area. But contrary to the popular rhetoric of people sneaking into countries through fences at the US–Mexico border, or crossing the Channel to Dover at the dead of night, “illegal’ migration takes on multiple forms.

It can involve simply overstaying one’s visa or violating the conditions of a visa by – for instance – working too many hours, or changing employer when not allowed to do so. Becoming an undocumented migrant is often actually a very mundane process, far removed from the rhetoric.

The consequential vulnerability can be truly devastating when people are treated as criminals without any consideration of their victimhood.

Denial of rights to domestic workers

The denial of rights increases a person’s vulnerability and essentially authorises certain exploitative practices. Domestic workers have been denied a number of rights because of the UK’s failure to ratify the ILO’s Rights of Domestic Workers Convention and the uniqueness of the domestic worker relationship, which falls in between “the market” and the non-market (family labour).

National Minimum Wage regulations allow employers to pay less than the required salary in relation to “work relating to the family household”. The definition of such work includes that the worker lives at their employer’s family home, and is treated as a member of the family “in particular as regards to the provision of living accommodation and meals and sharing of tasks and leisure activities”.

Workers “employed as a domestic servant in a private household” are also excluded from a number of the key limitations on working time. This includes the maximum average working week of 48 hours and from provisions on workplace inspections that apply in other settings.

Immigration system forced labour

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Restrictions on asylum seekers 

Asylum seekers are banned from applying for work unless their asylum application has been processing for at least one year. During this period they are limited to just £5.39 a day in welfare provisions. Faced with limited access to highly conditional and minimal benefits, some asylum seekers feel compelled to seek alternative means of income, often in informal and unregulated sectors of the economy that shield unscrupulous employers.

Future immigration plans

With the re-election of the Conservative government, the UK is now certain to leave the European Union and end free movement. The government is proposing a new, skills-based immigration system which contains some worrying provisions in regards to temporary migrant programmes.

There is little in the proposals on the problems associated with visa costs, namely debt-bondage and money tie-ins. Nor does the government propose ending the employer-visa tie, but it actually extends it to the new temporary migrant programmes.

Finally, migrants on these programmes will not have access to many public services. On top of being subjected to general taxation, they will be charged for using public services such as the NHS. This double-charge is expensive for migrants, and critics warn that denial of ordinary access to public services can create extreme vulnerability, further ripening conditions for forced labour exploitation.

Immigration System Forced Labour

Home Secretary Priti Patel. Image Credit: Flickr / DfID.

The”‘tough on immigration” approach that has dominated public policy in the last few years is inadvertently ripening conditions for exploitation and forced labour. The aspects of the system listed above create golden opportunities for unscrupulous employers to exploit vulnerable migrants.

What needs to happen is not a doubling-down on “tough on immigration” rhetoric, but an appreciation of the fact that highly-restrictive conditions on migrants working are creating a pool of easily exploited workers.

It isn’t just vulnerable migrants who suffer, but also the good, decent employers who are undercut by these exploitative practices.

About The Author

Jack Beadsworth Volunteer Writer

Jack graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA in Jurisprudence before qualifying as a Barrister this summer at the University of Law. He is now studying a Masters in Human Rights Law at the University of Bristol.

Jack graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA in Jurisprudence before qualifying as a Barrister this summer at the University of Law. He is now studying a Masters in Human Rights Law at the University of Bristol.