Anyone who thought that slavery is a thing of the past would have pause for thought having read recent media coverage of widespread human exploitation in the UK. The Times on 13th July 2020 ran a piece entitled '100,000 modern slaves exploited by gangs' which made for extremely sobering reading. This came hot on the heels of the news that clothes retailer Boohoo has links to a manufacturer in Leicester which it is alleged has been paying below minimum wages, providing poor working conditions, and mistreating staff. It is reported that some staff members only received pay of £3.50 per hour (compared to the minimum wage of £8.72 for those over the age of 25) and that there was very little effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 within the factory.
In this article, we will take a closer look at modern slavery in the context of our immigration system, and how despite a tightening of rules in recent years to prevent illegal immigration, criminals are able to traffic victims into the UK.
It is possible that the Leicester garment factory linked to Boohoo is merely the tip of the iceberg. In a recent article in the Financial Times, the reporter explains how just one building alone, the former Imperial Typewriter building in Leicester is now filled with garment workshops that manufacture items of clothing for large labels such as Boohoo at very low cost. But the manufacturers, in turn, claim that they are forced to work to minimum standards due to fierce competition and low prices which are orchestrated by retailers. The article cites Mohamed Karbhari, general manager at Top Fashion who says, we're kind of put into a cage, and we have to run around like rats; [Retailers] say, this person is doing it for three [pounds an item]. Can you do it for that? This person is doing it for four. Can you do it?
This is nothing new; for many years it has been well known that garment workers in towns and cities like Leicester are paid £3 per hour on average, which according to the article undercuts manufacturers in countries such as Romania.
It should also be emphasised that this problem is not limited to Leicester or the manufacture of clothing. According to the charity, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), exploitation is happening in all types of supply chains, including in the areas of outsourcing, subcontracting, and offshoring.
While it is true that some modern-day slaves are British nationals, many, if not the majority are from other countries, having been trafficked here or are already in the UK. According to Leicester-based manufacturer Bhavik Master, a director at Paul James Knitwear, some employers actively prey on the vulnerable situations of workers already who have come from countries in Southern Asia who have poor English and little in the way of options; Modern fast-fashion retailers exploit this poverty in Leicester, and people in Leicester start exploiting the benefits system..Fast fashion retailers completely take advantage.
The findings of a paper recently prepared and published by the campaign group, Labour Behind the Label, which focuses specifically on the Leicester-based garment factories states, In Leicester, it is estimated that most garment workers are from minority ethnic groups. Around 33.6% were born outside the UK (e.g. from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh but also Somalis and increasingly Eastern Europeans). These workers are vulnerable to abuse as a result of their immigration status, language skills, integration in the community (and support mechanisms such as union membership, etc.) as well as higher unemployment rates. There have also been numerous allegations of links to modern slavery and trafficking.
Indeed, it is believed it is the undocumented status of many migrants which makes them vulnerable to exploitation; The lack of documented resident status or entitlement to work means that many workers are willing to accept poor conditions in exchange for a job - even one without formal contracts or minimum wages. This also contributes to a situation where workers are unable or unwilling to speak out about labour rights abuses for fear of being deported or otherwise investigated. The situation is compounded by the UK Home Office hostile environment policy, which focusses on reducing immigration figures through restricting freedoms of people who are deemed to be in the UK illegally. In practice, these targets and punishes migrant workers as opposed to redressing exploitation and promoting a systematic change of labour practices.
It is hard to fathom how, given that the Home Office will act expediently to revoke sponsor licenses from otherwise legitimate employers who have breached a compliance requirement, or visas from students who have done nothing wrong, that such blatant exploitation of vulnerable undocumented migrants could have built up to such a level.
The harsh reality is that systematic change is needed in a range of areas including policing and enforcement, immigration, consumer awareness, health and safety, enforcement, and labour standards. Rather than making life harder for migrants, whether undocumented or not, the Government needs to do much more to consider the welfare of adults and children across the UK who are being enslaved for profit.
Companies also need to become much more accountable for their actions and decisions. Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, only businesses with a turnover of more than £36m are legally required to disclose details of their supply chains. But how many companies operate below the radar, and are not required to be transparent?
The truth is that as consumers, we do not need to wait for governments, agencies, and companies to act to protect the wellbeing and welfare of vulnerable migrants. This may never happen. But by making a careful assessment of where we purchase items on a daily basis, we all have the potential to demand higher standards from the companies we pay money to, and by acting collectively, we can make a real difference. In this case, the power to bring about change really is in the hands of the consumer. For legal assistance on any immigration matter, contact our immigration solicitors.
What are the options of an illegal immigrant living in the UK?
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