Immigration: The Bully of the Gang

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Migrants face violence, intimidation and insecurity when working in Britain - so says a new report released by the TUC. Peter Morgan spoke to Bridget Anderson, one of the report's authors.

This is a report that the government did not want you to see. 'Forced Labour and Migration to the UK' was written by two independent academics and explores the relationship between forced labour, migration and the deregulated markets under the Labour government. The report was initially delivered to the International Labour Organisation and the TUC last year but it remained unpublished for six months. The Guardian disclosed on 3 February that the report was due to come out at last year's TUC conference but under pressure from the government it was held back with a view to releasing it after the general election. However, the report was eventually released in mid-February.

It makes uncomfortable reading for the government. It reveals the coercive techniques used by employers to force migrants to work for low wages and long hours under the constant threat of physical and sexual intimidation. As Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, states in the introduction, 'Over recent years there have been many reports in the media of the extreme forms of exploitation that some migrant workers face in Britain. [But] this report differs in that the researchers have put this shameful phenomenon into a bigger picture. They show that the practices used by a minority of employers fall under the internationally agreed definitions of forced labour, which most people would have assumed had been banished from Britain long ago. Far from being restricted to the extreme fringes of the economy, forced labour can be found at the base of key industries, and goes far beyond the agricultural and sex work with which it is normally associated.'

Bridget Anderson, one of the authors, spoke to Socialist Review about its main findings. We also quote some of the harrowing tales of exploitation and bullying that British employers use against migrant labour.

Peter Morgan: Could you summarise briefly what areas your report covered and what its main findings were?

Bridget Anderson: The report was about forced labour and migration to the UK and it was looking at four sectors - contract cleaning, agriculture, care homes and construction. One of the key findings of the research is that people tend to associate working irregularly and illegally with being a form of forced labour, being grossly exploited and trafficked. Actually these workers were in this country under a work permit system, working completely legally. And they were in situations of quite extreme exploitation and abuse simply because they were tied to their employers by their work permits. That was one of the important findings of the report.

Another was how immigration controls and the use of immigration controls to allegedly clamp down on abuse and exploitation of migrant labour actually encouraged workers who were already exploited to collude with their employers, to have a common interest with them in evading the authorities. This was because people could not report that their employer was beating them or not giving them any money because to do so meant the risk of being deported. So the worker had more to lose than their employer. I suppose those are the two key findings.

Basically there are two ways that the system works. People can be brought in to work for a specific employer, and the name of the employer is written on somebody's visa. This means that if they leave the employer, or if the employer does not want to renew their work permit, then the worker is forced into illegality.

Or people work in breach of their immigration conditions; whether they enter the country illegally, they are an asylum seeker or a student - there are a whole range of ways that people can work. I suppose the key thing is that the flexible labour markets and the way the labour market in those particular sectors works is to rely on a pool of workers who are instantly available but also instantly sackable, who are cheap and who are, in the case of care homes, available to live in - because the issue of accommodation interfaces with the requirement for flexible labour.

So there is a requirement within those different sectors for highly flexible and hyper-exploitable labour. And that could also be British citizens as well - it's not just about migrants, it's about the labour market conditions - although it is migrants who are more vulnerable to that kind of exploitation. But you have to look at those labour market structures, and if you want solutions to the problems then you have to look at that rather than looking at immigration controls and keeping migrants out.

The thing that comes across is that the labour you examined is absolutely central to the economy and is not peripheral.

Yes, absolutely. All of it is labour that cannot be moved. For example in construction - if you have to build a house it has to be done on site. If you have to care for an old person you cannot ship them off to Thailand where it can be done cheaper. So these are not sectors where you can move production to somewhere it is easier to exploit labour - these are sectors where labour has to come to the site. So in some ways it is hardly surprising that there are conditions of abuse and exploitation in Britain that you would expect in developing countries and poor countries. Yet people continue to be surprised that it happens here.

The report contains powerful interviews and eyewitness accounts from those who have to work in these conditions. Were you shocked or surprised at how severe the exploitation is, and at the extreme lengths that employers go to to bully, abuse and intimidate people?

Unfortunately not, because I have been doing this long enough to know this seedy side of British employment. But what I did find interesting was how employers and agencies justified this exploitation and how they felt it necessary. Yet this is because of the way the labour market is structured. I thought it quite interesting talking to the employers because they felt that people were viewing them as evil bastards when they argued that they were only trying to make a living.

Another feature of the press coverage of migrant labour and the abuse of migrant labour is that it's very lurid and very much about individual evil employers and evil gang masters who are morally reprehensible. Actually a lot of these employers are just the same as a lot of British employers. One of the things we tried to do with the report was to move away from a lot of the moral language that pervades the talk of exploitation.

What do you think of the current debate that is taking place between Labour and the Tories over the issue of immigration, and their talk of limiting the number of migrants?

I think that a lot of what the Tories are proposing is really only an extension of Labour Party logic. All the stuff around quotas on asylum that the Tories are suggesting is actually something that the Labour Party has been congratulating itself over. And all this idea about points schemes - you have to look at who are the majority of the people who are coming to do the work. They are not the doctors or professionals, they are the people who are working on very low wages, in very insecure employment, and you don't get many points for doing that. But if you stop letting these people in then the economy falls apart.

In fact, they are not going to stop letting these people in - tightening up on immigration controls doesn't necessarily reduce numbers. And you could argue that you have less control, because you have less people who are able to enter under legal schemes and you'll have more people forced into irregularity, a larger pool of super-exploitable labour which means that the whole cycle just continues. So long as they continue to look at immigration controls rather than the labour market the problem will continue. Instead we should look at properly implementing legislation such as the Employment Agencies Act, or the minimum wage, or proper health and safety.

What sort of response have you had to the report since it came out - have you had any feedback from the government at all?

We've had no feedback from the government and the report has not been reported that widely. Instead all the media coverage was about how it had been suppressed and not the content of the report itself.

Section four of the report looks at 'Forced Labour and Exploitation in the UK'. Some of the methods of forced labour include:

Violence and intimidation:

'In February 2004 Greek workers were brought to Cornwall to pick daffodils for Winchester Growers, a major supplier of flowers to retailers including Sainsbury's, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Homebase and major garden centres. The daffodil pickers, however, claimed they had been subjected to "slave labour conditions", including ten hours a day in the rain and snow and being given cans of dog food to eat. They slept in tents and unheated sheds, which were described by the local authority head of planning and building control as being "totally unfit for human habitation". They allege that they were physically beaten and threatened by armed thugs when they said they wanted to return to Greece... Friends from there in turn contacted the Greek embassy, who arranged to help them escape.'

Debt bondage:

This was the form of coercion most encountered by the study. It occurs when a migrant without the financial means to organise a trip abroad is offered a loan, often subject to very high interest charges, which must be paid back after starting work.

'One woman had borrowed US$1,000 for her trip and had not yet managed to pay this off, despite being in the UK for nearly four years. She is currently paid £2 an hour to work in a chip shop for 12 hours a day. From Monday to Saturday she lives off the chips, but on Sunday must pay for her food. Sometimes she works as a barmaid with no pay but for a free meal.'

Restriction of movement:

This is often achieved by retaining identity documents, while at the same time threatening the worker with denunciation to the authorities.

A Filipina domestic worker interviewed in the report said, 'My employer kept my passport. He kept it in an attaché case, locked. I never tried to get it. The first year we came here, one colleague jumped and they started to hide our passports in case we jumped too.'


Workers were often forced to work long hours to keep their jobs. A Ukrainian agricultural worker described picking strawberries at piece rate: 'At last we felt we were going to have some real money for our hard work. So we all went out working as hard as the human body is capable of. One girl even fell unconscious, with blood running from her nose - her blood pressure had risen rapidly from exhaustion.'

Unscrupulous agencies:

Unscrupulous agencies often put migrants at risk of forced labour by having to work irregularly to cover expenses: 'Six women were interviewed who were among 30 nurses recruited by an agency to train and work in the UK. Their contract specifically states that they will receive a hospital training placement and that, as long as they obtain a satisfactory placement report, they will receive a contract to work at a British hospital for more than three years. The cost of this was £10,000 each necessitating large loans...

'On arrival they were placed, not in a hospital, but in a further education college, having been recruited, as far as the college was concerned, as international students. Their student visa means they can work just enough hours to finance the £60 weekly fee and the £87 accommodation charge.

'The same agency, a UK registered company, was also involved in recruiting 14 Chinese nurses in Tyneside in 2002 at a cost to the nurses of £9,000. Eight months later, ten of them were working as cleaners and dishwashers and even being sent money from their families.'

One of the most disturbing findings is evidence of exploitation of migrants for government organisations such as the NHS. This is illustrated by the case study provided by a legal expert on Conrado, a highly qualified nurse from Asia:

'Conrado was among many who were approached by a UK-based company, X, with offices in an Asian city. Applicants are interviewed by agency staff, and the videos shown to prospective employers/agencies. Having waited for up to one year for the initial interview he and his friends were told some days beforehand that they had to pay some £200 each for the production of the interview video.

'After passing the pre-selection test they were offered a further interview, this time by a different UK-based agency, Y. The Department of Health has provisionally listed this agency, Y, as one abiding by the code of practice for NHS employers involved in international recruitment. This interview was conducted over the internet, and cost a further £200 a head. Some 32 nurses were selected, but they were then told that they had to pay a further £300 for the work permit and placement fee.

'Having paid a total of £700 - for which no receipts were given, they were then informed that they needed to raise one month's deposit and one month's rent for their accommodation on arrival in the UK. Conrado described himself as feeling quite desperate by then.

'"We were all drained in terms of the finances and this was the exact timing where a finance company, G, offered a loan of £1,500 with a net loan of around £1,100 with a monthly payment of £302. Desperate to grab the opportunity we took the loan even if we knew that almost nothing would be left from our salary and besides we're not in the position to decline the offer." The company G is a British-based finance company, affiliated to the original recruitment agency X, set up to provide loans to professionals. The finance company director shares the surname and address of the director of agency X.

'When the nurses arrived in the UK they were given tenancy agreements to sign. They had not yet seen their accommodation, but signed. After two months the nurses found that they were unable to pay for the accommodation and give themselves an adequate diet. Having taken advice from a legal agency the nurses decided to pay the going rate for their accommodation, and changed the amount accordingly.

'They were then called in to a meeting in which both their manager and their recruiter/landlord were present. They were informed by their manager that if they did not pay the full house rental they would have proven themselves "not trustworthy" and that the NHS Trust therefore would not support their application to register to practise nursing in the UK.

'Forms had been prepared authorising the deduction of their rent from their salaries, and they were told that if they did not sign, they would not be registered: "We were caught between the fear of being sent home and the fear of not paying back the debt, when the interest is getting higher all the time."

'The nurses signed the authorisation. This money, together with the recruiter's loan, was deducted at source by the NHS Trust. So, while the nurses' average net salary was £805 exclusive of tax, the amount they received, after deductions of £305 for rent and £302 (for loan repayment) was £198, or £46 a week, from which of course they also had to pay the loans incurred for video interviewing and visas. Conrado described how he lived on £5 worth of food in a week, having an apple for breakfast, a snack in the staff canteen for lunch, and rice for dinner. He felt that he was relatively fortunate because he lived close enough to the hospital to walk.'