Exploitation of migrant workers Modern slavery is more common than you might think. In fact, the UK’s immigration system enables the exploitation of migrant workers. State regulated immigration pathways, like the visa sponsorship system, are being used to effectively traffick workers into exploitative situations. Migrants across multiple employment sectors face numerous issues including debt bondage, […]


Exploitation of migrant workers

Modern slavery is more common than you might think. In fact, the UK’s immigration system enables the exploitation of migrant workers.

State regulated immigration pathways, like the visa sponsorship system, are being used to effectively traffick workers into exploitative situations. Migrants across multiple employment sectors face numerous issues including debt bondage, forced labour, unfair dismissal, threats, and the issue of arriving in the UK only to find the job they were promised does not exist. 

The Migrants’ Rights Network and Migrants at Work are calling for the sponsorship system to be dismantled to protect migrant workers from trafficking and modern slavery situations.

The root of the problem

Exploitation is ingrained in sponsorship visa routes. Employers with sponsorship licences in the UK, and recruiters in home countries, are using deception, coercion of payments, and sometimes threats to visa-holders to exploit migrant workers. 

Sponsorship schemes are designed solely on the basis of productivity and business and economic interests, rather than the wellbeing and protection of migrant workers in mind. When an employer holds power over a sponsored migrant worker due to their immigration status, this can easily be abused. The system explicitly makes sponsored workers vulnerable to exploitation.

To be honest, I never thought anything like this happened in the UK. Working for 23 days without a day off. Forced to stay in our employer’s house. He deducts rent and food from our wages, it has been a nightmare.

Care Assistant

Recruitment fees and the certificate of sponsorship (CoS)

Recruitment fees, and in some cases, the certificate of sponsorship (CoS) being passed on to the migrant worker is one of the fundamental issues in the sponsorship scheme. Many sponsors outsource their immigration matters to third-party providers such as HR services, recruitment agencies and immigration lawyers, or so-called ‘brokers’. Evidence gathered by Migrants at Work has found some workers are paying an average of £17,000 for the certificate of sponsorship.

I came to the UK to work, I have paid so much money for my visa. Immigration skills charge,  NHS surcharge. I did everything by the book, I have even paid fees I was not supposed to pay, because I was not aware.  Now I am stuck, I have been in the UK for 4 months. My sponsor says he has no work. I am in a foreign country, with no family, no friends, no money and no recourse to public funds. What am I supposed to do?

Care Worker

Safe-reporting and compliance

The UK Immigration and Visas guidance on the sponsor compliance visits states that sponsorship is based on two fundamental principles:

  1. Employers and/or other bodies who are bringing migrants to the UK play their part in making sure the system is not abused
  2. The Home Office needs to be sure those applying to come to the UK are “eligible” to do so and that a reputable employer or education provider “genuinely wishes to employ or enrol them”

Migrant workers have just 60 days to find a new sponsored employer. This timeframe is insufficient because it is not easy to find a new sponsor. During this period, these migrant workers have no access to public funds, and therefore, risk becoming destitute.

After 60 days, if migrant workers have found no sponsor, they are expected to leave the UK voluntarily, or face deportation. There are no ways in which migrants can safely report exploitative practices without experiencing repercussions either by their sponsors or the Home Office. And this explains why sponsored migrant workers do not come forward, even when they have no issues with their sponsor or are abused by a third party abused by their sponsor. Sponsored workers who find themselves trapped in this scenario created by the revocation of their sponsor’s licence can end up being forced to work in breach of their immigration conditions to survive. Ultimately, it is the migrant worker who bears the brunt of compliance investigations.

Migrants’ Rights Network and Migrants at Work have partnered to expose the fundamental root issues in the UK visa sponsorship schemes. A vast amount of work has mainly focused on care workers and seasonal agricultural workers, however there are migrants in other sectors who are being impacted. We are working together to raise awareness of this and call for an end to the sponsorship system. 

Previous work: 

https://migrantsrights.org.uk/2023/10/18/uk-parliament-human-trafficking-evidence/ 

https://migrantsrights.org.uk/2023/10/18/uk-parliament-inhumane-migration-act-evidence/

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