Precarious Lives – Forced labour among refugees and asylum seekers in the UK

A new report released last week, shows for the first time that refugees and asylum seekers are a specific group of migrants who are vulnerable to exploitation and forced labour in the UK.

 The report published by the Precarious Lives Research Project, was the result of two years’ of investigation into experiences of forced labouri amongst refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Using the 11 indicators published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for identifying forced labour, the report shows that these vulnerable groups of people are susceptible to all forms of forced labour, from threats, violence and the withholding of wages to retention of identity papers.

 Withholding wages was found to be the most common of forced labour practices by employers in the UK. For example, a participant in the report, Asanne, agreed to work for £200 a week but found that obtaining the money proved extremely difficult.

 “Every Friday there is a new story, there is a new excuse…He would say things like ‘this week you haven’t worked hard enough, I’ve got no money and you haven’t worked hard enough I haven’t sold anything or I haven’t been able to do this’, so yes, he put the blame – so sometimes he would say ‘the bank hasn’t given me any money so I can’t get any money out the bank.’”

 Asanne went for a period of nine months without getting paid once. Accounts like these are common, with asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers too afraid to report this form of exploitation to authorities due to risks of being detained or deported.

 The 40-page report found specific sectors were more commonly associated with forced labour practices such as cleaning, care, catering and factory work. However the study found that forced labour in the UK is split roughly down the middle between the formal and informal sectors, from cash in hand work such as car washing, to the formal sector where an asylum seeker or refugee may even have permission to work or uses someone else’s documents, but is still exploited through the involvement of a 3rd person retaining some of their wages.

The UK Asylum System: a System of Enforced Destitution?

Under international law, a person has the right to seek asylum in the UK and cannot be forcibly returned to a country where they have fear of persecution. However, since 2002, people claiming asylum in the UK (and therefore waiting for a decision on their asylum application) are not allowed to work. Therefore they are entirely dependent on the state for support to survive. Unfortunately asylum support is constantly changing and can be extremely confusing for people new to this country and for whom English may be a second language.

The situation is even worse for refused asylum seekers, who see support and housing removed within 21 days of a negative decision regarding their asylum claim. Unless they qualify for the limited “section 4” support they are likely to become homeless and destitute.

The Precarious Lives Report concludes that the UK asylum system therefore directly contributes to the problems faced by refugees and asylum seekers. This alleged deliberate policy of enforced destitution pushes people into the forced labour market, through restrictions on benefit, housing and the prohibition on working.

Vulnerability is a key issue. Refugees and asylum seekers are exploited because they have no other options. They see forced labour as necessary to survive and to provide for their family. Most people interviewed did not even expect to receive the minimum wage.

 Next Steps and Proposals 

This is only the first stage of the research. The initial report is viewed as a platform from which to begin tackling these problems. As an audience member at the launch of the report noted, these findings are not hugely surprising to many who live and work within the asylum sector in the UK – the real issue is what to do with the report. Over the coming months, the Precarious Lives Project will investigate the conclusions and recommendations detailed in the report including: 

  • How best to inform victims of forced labour of their rights, for example by engaging with trade unions and utilising their networks. In Germany trade unions have had success with the setting up of drop–in centres to inform undocumented migrants of their labour rights. 

  • Dialogue with the UK government on ending destitution by enforcing the minimum wage for all workers and giving permission to work to asylum seekers.

  • Raising awareness that forced labour is a criminal offenceii amongst government officials and that it is not limited to cases that involve trafficking.iii

  • The key role of the voluntary and community based refugee organisations in spreading information and campaigning. With legal aid rapidly shrinking, and ever-tighter budgets, refugee and asylum NGOs will need to find new and inventive ways of fighting these problems, through better cooperation and the sharing of information and networks.

It is hoped that reports like this and the on-going work of the Precarious Lives Research Project will raise awareness of the problems faced on a daily basis by refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. By taking a firm stand against forced labour practices in the UK, some of the most vulnerable members of society can be free from exploitation, allowing them to take control of their lives and the lives of their families.

 Nicholas Maple

Twitter: @NicholasMaple1

 For further information on forced labour and the report discussed above please see the websites of Precarious Lives Research Project and Anti Slavery International

i Broadly speaking forced labour involves two basic elements: the work carried out is obtained under threat of penalty and is undertaken under a form of cohesions.

 ii The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 criminalise holding another person in servitude or compulsory labour while under international law the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) obliges governments to “suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms within the shortest possible period”. 

iii See the recent case of L & Ors “Where the question arose as to whether a defendant who had committed an offence was a victim of trafficking the prosecution was, and remained, responsible for deciding whether to prosecute or not. The court’s role was to protect the rights of a victim of trafficking by overseeing the decision of the prosecutor and refusing to countenance any prosecution which failed to acknowledge and address the victim’s subservient situation.”


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