Exploited migrant workers in the UK: Heightened risks and mitigation failures

Within the UK, migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation will become more acute in the coming months and years. To begin with, those fleeing war in Ukraine are at risk of being trafficked for the purposes of exploitation. This situation is exacerbated by the UK government’s intransigence over waiving visa conditions, choosing instead to implement a scheme that contains further exploitation risks for Ukrainians. In addition, the UK’s National Borders Bill, if passed in its current form, will introduce new challenges to identifying and supporting victims of modern slavery. These developments further complicate and compound the conditions that are already resulting in around ten thousand referrals per year to the National Referral Mechanism for potential victims of modern slavery, the most severe form of exploitation. And these are just the reported cases.

Calls for companies to take responsibility for their supply chains to ensure they are not utilising exploited workers, indirectly or otherwise, will not come as a surprise. Since the passing of the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) in 2015, any company earning £36 million or above has been obliged to publish an annual statement detailing what steps they are taking to address modern slavery risks.

My research into how the construction industry – one of the highest risk sectors in the UK for modern slavery – is tackling exploitation risks in its supply chains sheds light on recent progress.

One encouraging finding is that industry practitioners understand modern slavery to include lesser forms of exploitation, meaning there is awareness that it is not only the most severe cases that need to be identified or addressed. As a Director of Procurement and Supply Chains put it:

“[modern slavery is] about people in this country and how they’re put to work and controlled, or whether they have to pay for their own personal protective equipment, or pay for their journeys to work, or indeed not being paid the minimum wage”.

In addition, many of those working in large contractors know that risks are exacerbated, if not created, by the opaque and complex labour supply networks that result from the extensive use of subcontracting:

“If you’re looking down the modern slavery and the ethical route and labour exploitation, it’s difficult isn’t it because the visibility as you go down to tier two, tier three, and then the real micro businesses, that visibility just gets muddier and muddier and muddier“.

An understanding of those most susceptible to exploitation was also displayed: “I think the overseas workers without their knowledge of England, being away from their roots, they’re the most vulnerable for sure”.

The problem is that this knowledge has not led to robust and effective mitigation measures. Instead, there is a heavy reliance upon paperwork-based measures that cascade expectations and terms & conditions through the labour supply network; training to ‘spot the signs’ of slavery; document checks, albeit in response to immigration legislation rather than the MSA; and, in very rare cases, audits.

These measures are neither sufficient alone nor in combination to address modern slavery risks. A Director within a material supplier summarised how these have largely resulted in a shallow compliance exercise:

“A lot has been said about the trickle-down impact of the big contractors telling the smaller contractors they’ve got to do something or not got to do something. I think the way that the majority of that’s been done is, it’s actually turned into a tick box, “Have you done this?”, Yes, “Have you put a poster up?”, Yes, “Do you think slavery is horrible?”, Yes, tick, next. “What’s your lowest price?””.

In other words, the approach to addressing modern slavery within the sector is to implement superficial changes, which do not challenge the complexity or opacity of labour supply chains, and therefore do little to improve their transparency.

Evidenced here is an incongruity between knowledge of the risks and the measures put in place to address them. There are two main reasons for this. First, principal contractors believe that going beyond the minimum expectations in relation to modern slavery mitigation carries no corresponding reward or benefit to the business. A Group Procurement Director articulated this point:

“From an absolute competitive point of view, to some degree it gives you a disadvantage because you’ve probably got to take on more costs… The more risk-averse you are, the more cost you might take on compared with a less risk-averse organisation.”

As such, companies implement the measures they believe they need to have in place in order to bid for work from clients, but they seldom go beyond this point.

The second reason is the behaviour of clients, who award work based on lowest price competitive tender and are not willing to provide additional funding for contractors to address modern slavery risks. As a Corporate Responsibility Director explained, this behaviour is not restricted to the private sector: “You’d just be surprised with the leadership approach from government if I’m perfectly honest, that it is about price”. This has led to cynicism in how companies respond to clients’ questions about their mitigation strategies. A Compliance Director explained how they finesse the wording in their responses to the prequalification documents that are used by clients to select companies to undertake work:

“We sometimes are a little bit I suppose, you know, aspirational in what we say that we are doing in our responses that are really nicely worded, and then we just throw in a rates card that makes us competitive.”

This then filters down through the supply chain, with each element being squeezed for profit.

Both points illustrate that the industry’s lacklustre attempts to address modern slavery are not merely the result of apathy or a lack of desire for more substantial measures. In fact, many industry practitioners said they would like the industry to step up its efforts. But competitive dynamics and clients’ often intractable position on budgets have placed limits on the parameters of what is deemed possible. This has led to some frustrated, and accurate, declarations that the market-led approach to addressing modern slavery has failed. As one Director put it, “we’ve tried the voluntary approach, we’re in the voluntary approach and it doesn’t work”. It was instead suggested change would only come when companies are legally compelled to act by the state.

There is certainly recent evidence of the state’s interest in modern slavery. For instance, it is introducing the aforementioned National Borders Bill, which has been widely condemned by anti-slavery organisations. And it recently made a failed attempt to overturn a high court ruling that granted trafficking victims leave to remain in the UK. As revealed above, it also procures on lowest price as a construction industry client, which means it produces modern slavery legislation with one hand and contributes to the practices that incentivise minimal mitigation efforts with the other.

Evidently, expecting the state to drive the modern slavery agenda forwards in favour of exploited workers, especially those who are undocumented, is, to put it mildly, not a great strategy. The construction industry, as with other sectors, cannot simply wait until they are compelled to improve their efforts by legislation. At a time of heightened risk for those most vulnerable in society, companies are therefore faced with two choices. Either they improve their mitigation strategies to ensure they are better suited to the nature of the risks, however challenging this might be, or they choose inaction. The choice of what companies should do is obvious, but whether they will take this route is another matter.

Chris Pesterfield is a PhD candidate in Management at the University of Bristol. This contribution draws upon his research on the construction industry’s response to the Modern Slavery Act.

Image credit: wal_172619