National Human Trafficking Awareness Day: How UK Visa Schemes Enable Trafficking

by Migrants’ Rights Network and Migrants At Work

Widespread interventions and research on human trafficking and modern slavery address emerging trends- largely focusing on the symptom rather than the cause. Furthermore, the expertise and lived experience of migrant workers on visa sponsorship schemes are generally omitted from policy research and recommendations. As we mark National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, it is important we look at the root causes of trafficking and how UK visa schemes enable trafficking.

How states enable trafficking

State regulated immigration pathways (the visa sponsorship system) is being used to traffick migrant workers. Employers with sponsorship licences in the UK, and recruiters in origin countries, are using deception, coercion of payments, and sometimes threats to visa-holders e.g. Skilled Worker visa holders and Seasonal Agricultural Workers which leads to forced labour and debt bondage.

Together, the Immigration Act 1971 and the immigration rules create the labour migration control framework that enables trafficking.The Act provides the framework for immigration control and decides who is subject to immigration control and who is not. The immigration rules are rules by which people subject to immigration control can be granted status subject to conditions. These can include a condition prohibiting or restricting work and the general grounds for cancelling sponsored workers’ entry clearance or permission to stay. 

The current anti-trafficking strategy in the UK is based on compliance. The UK’s modern slavery strategy aims to break the business model of criminals. The intention behind the policy is to tackle the people smugglers using irregular routes. However, this strategy does not address the problem of trafficking where exploitative employers or recruiters use state-sanctioned migration routes to the UK. In order to tackle deep-rooted exploitation and trafficking, the focus needs to move away from compliance and rescue to prevention. At present, the emphasis is on enforcement and will lead to more sponsorship licences. While this would be a reasonable measure to take, the revocation of an employer’s sponsorship licence has immediate ramifications for the sponsored migrant workers who will have their visa curtailed, leaving them vulnerable to destitution, deportation or further harm.  

Recruitment schemes facilitate trafficking

Migrants at Work and Migrants’ Rights Network have evidence of how employers with sponsorship licences are breaching their existing compliance terms and are becoming embroiled in trafficking situations. We have heard of sponsored migrant workers being charged illegal recruitment fees, as well as being forced to pay for the employer’s sponsorship licence and Immigration Skills Surcharge. There are several occasions where employers are breaching pay and employment conditions (protected under immigration rules) by not paying the National Minimum Wage or meeting their obligations as stated in the certificate of sponsorship. These employers are not being investigated for compliance of employment law, as breaches of employment law are considered low priorities by the Home Office. 

This is exacerbated by low human resources in Home Office compliance teams who are unable to undertake effective and regular follow-up compliance investigations and visits to ensure licence holders are meeting their responsibilities. There are very few repercussions for the employer if they breach sponsorship rules or labour rights as set out in immigration rules. 

Migrants at Work and Migrants’ Rights Network worked with the Observer on the case of a Zimbabwean national who confidentially disclosed details of exploitation to Home Office compliance officers for an investigation into illegal recruitment practices. The care worker told the Home Office she paid a fee of £1,500 to an agent for finding them work. Despite assurances by the compliance team that her identity would not be disclosed, details of the investigation were disclosed to the employer. This meant that not only was her job and visa were at risk as a result of the employer losing its sponsorship licence, but she was exposed to harassment and abuse.

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. We have evidence from individuals being threatened with being reported to the Home Office to have their visa revoked when they have questioned working conditions or pay, or even when they wish to leave the sponsored employer. As a result, exploitation and creating vulnerability for sponsored workers is ingrained in the sponsorship system itself. 

Effective human trafficking campaigns and protection must look at root causes of trafficking including how visa schemes facilitate trafficking. Protection measures from human trafficking must protect sponsored workers from employers who fail to meet their responsibilities, and importantly, the Home Office must refrain from revoking sponsor licences. Sponsored workers who find themselves without a sponsor have 60 days to find a new sponsor otherwise they must leave the UK. Instead, where the threshold is met, they should consider a suspension of the sponsors’ licence in order to protect the worker from losing their job and putting them at risk of losing their visa. On each occasion, they must put in an action plan in partnership with Self-Organised Lived Experience (SOLEX) organisations.  

Check out our joint campaign with Migrants at Work on State-Enabled Modern Slavery.

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