Call for Evidence: House of Lords Select Committee on the Modern Slavery Act 2015

Response by Migrants’ Rights Network and Migrants at Work


  1. Migrants’ Rights Network and Migrants at Work
  2. Introduction
  3. The impact of international and domestic policies on the Modern Slavery Act
    1. Developments in the UK
    2. International examples
    3. Legislative gaps
  4. State-enabled slavery: supply chains and compliance
    1. Sponsorship visa system
    2. Debt bondage, recruitment fees and certificate of sponsorship
    3. Compliance and safe-reporting
  5. Recommendations

1. Migrants’ Rights Network and Migrants At Work

The Migrants’ Rights Network is a UK charity that stands in solidarity with migrants in their fights for rights and justice. We co-curate campaigns using anti-oppression practices to create transformational change, extending beyond the individual impact on migrants’ lives, to tackle oppression at its source.

Migrants at Work is a Self-Organised Lived Experience (SOLEX) advocate organisation, which exists to understand and tackle the root causes of human trafficking. Since 2009, Migrants at Work have been researching how the legal rules empowers employers and alleged criminals¹ to traffick workers through legal migration routes into exploitation.

2. Introduction

The UK’s anti-slavery policies, specifically the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and Modern Slavery Strategy, are centred on crime prevention which fail to address the vulnerabilities to trafficking and modern slavery created through so-called ‘legal’ routes such as visa sponsorship schemes. The issues surrounding it are rooted in immigration laws. The UK modern slavery strategy builds on and adapts the framework implemented in serious and organised crimes and counter-terrorism strategies. The Government’s strategy is divided into distinctive strands, including ‘Pursue’, ‘Prevent’, ‘Protect’ and ‘Prepare’, yet it fails to examine the root causes of modern slavery or how migrant workers arriving through visa sponsorship routes are often faced with exploitation and deterred from reporting it. 

In fact, human trafficking and modern slavery is being enabled through the visa sponsorship system, particularly within the care and agricultural sectors but not exclusive to these sectors. Sponsorship schemes and bilateral agreements have created and enabled ‘legal’ pathways to be utilised by exploitative employers, recruiters, and potential criminals. Sponsored migrant workers then struggle to leave these situations through the 60-day limit on finding a new sponsoring employer, in conjunction with poor provisions for (temporary) status and difficulties proving exploitation.

This joint evidence draws on the expertise and lived experience of Migrants at Work, along with case studies from those who have experienced exploitation and modern slavery.

3. The impact of international and domestic policies on the Modern Slavery Act

This section will answer questions 1 and 2 of the Committee’s inquiry.

The Modern Slavery Act has not kept up-to-date with legislative and policy developments in the UK. Under the sponsorship system the Home Office grants visa sponsorship licences to employers for workers in occupations on the Skilled Worker list and Shortage Occupation List². Employers then recruit these workers to the UK. Sponsored migrant workers have often been found to be overworked or left without work. Some sponsors have collected illegal recruitment fees from sponsored migrant workers, falling foul of the Fraud Act 2006.

This practice is also a form of human exploitation, which is covered under the Slavery Convention 1956, but it is not recognised under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. As a result, those who are referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) facing this type of exploitation see their application for protection denied because they do not meet the threshold of human exploitation within the Modern Slavery Act 2015, as well as the legal labour exploitation threshold for criminal prosecution under the Palermo Convention and the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive. 

Consequently, existing modern slavery frameworks in the UK are entirely inadequate to address the forms of exploitation arising out of the sponsorship framework of the recruitment and employment of sponsored migrant workers.

a. Developments in the UK

Support available for victims of modern slavery, too, has diminished. In recent years, modern slavery and human trafficking has been approached domestically as primarily an immigration issue, with the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the ‘Illegal Migration’ Act 2023. Under these Acts, protections for migrant victims of trafficking and modern slavery have been significantly reduced by removing access to protections via the NRM for people who entered the UK through irregular routes and for people who are liable to be deported. This is in contravention to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights’ guidelines on human trafficking³

These erosions of protections came after a record increase in people affected by modern slavery. We have seen a deeply troubling further increase in modern slavery incidences following the expansion of the visa sponsorship system at the end of 2020, as detailed below. The continued failure to adopt amendments to the Modern Slavery Act enabling sponsored workers to change employers, for example, has had increasing consequences in light of this expansion. 

b. International examples

As a result, the UK is now behind countries like Canada and Ireland, which have implemented protections for migrant victims of modern slavery through transitional work permits. In Canada, the ‘open work permits for vulnerable workers’ (OPW-V), allow migrant victims of modern slavery as a result of tied employment permission to work for any employer for the remainder of their contract. In Ireland, the Reactivation Employment Permit enables migrant workers who have been exploited and lost their immigration status to be able to work and regain regularised status. Unlike other similar schemes, this permit can also be renewed, with the view to permanent settlement. 

While both have their limitations, they go further than the UK’s restrictions to Limited Leave to Remain (LLR), which were further limited to offer no obligation to grant LLR under the ‘Illegal Migration’ Act. 

c. Legislative gaps

 Criminal prosecution for modern slavery and human trafficking is often not possible, as the threshold in domestic legislation in the UK is too high.

Not only is the Modern Slavery Act not up-to-date, but it has created a gap between Article 4 of the ECHR, Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Palermo Convention leading to low or no prosecutions. 

To bridge the gap created by the Palermo Convention’s definition, Section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 must be constructed in accordance with Article 4 of the European Convention On Human Rights and Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

4. State-enabled slavery: supply chains and compliance

This section will answer questions 3 and 4 of the Committee’s inquiry.

Modern slavery is being enabled through the visa sponsorship system, particularly within the care and agricultural sectors but not exclusive to these sectors. Sponsorship schemes and bilateral agreements have created and enabled ‘legal’ pathways to be utilised by exploitative employers and potential criminals. The UK’s anti-slavery policies are centred on crime prevention strategies which fail to address the vulnerabilities to trafficking created through visa sponsorship routes and rooted in immigration laws. 

a. Sponsorship visa system

The sponsorship licensing scheme has been the primary route for employers/ businesses to sponsor migrant workers outside of Europe prior to us leaving the European Union. The numbers of sponsorship licences have significantly increased over the past decade, with numbers in 2014 only reaching over 35,000 but in 2024, the number has risen to over 95,000. The sponsor licences are mainly held by private companies, with the health and social care sector holding the largest number of licences

The sponsorship system has been celebrated by many employers and businesses as a route to bring those with the right skills and experience to the UK to build successful careers and companies. However, in practice, we can demonstrate that this scheme is being used as a route to exploit migrant workers with little safeguards for those arriving in the UK via this scheme. This includes charging illegal and excessive fees, not receiving contracted hours, withholding employer references, and generally making it extremely hard for sponsored workers to leave exploitative conditions.

“[My employer] deducted money off my payslip because they got a call from the companies I was applying for a job from that needed a reference and they went on to deduct money without my consent because they thought I was “leaving the company””.

Sponsored migrant worker

b. Debt bondage, recruitment fees and certificate of sponsorship

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 and modern slavery 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 the 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. Furthermore, these employers/sponsors are not being investigated for compliance of employment law, as breaches of employment law are being considered low priority by the Home Office. Many sponsors outsource their immigration matters to third-party providers such as HR services, recruitment agencies and immigration lawyers, or so-called ‘brokers’. Migrants at Work has found some workers are being charged an average of £17,000 for the certificate of sponsorship.

All of this is compounded 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. 

“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

c. Compliance and safe-reporting

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-enabled migration routes to the UK, i.e. visa sponsorship schemes. 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. While this may seem a reasonable measure to take, the enforcement of revoking an employer’s sponsorship licence has immediate ramifications for the sponsored migrant workers who will have their visa curtailed at the same time. The Home Office offers a reprieve of 60-days to find a new sponsored employer but this is still insufficient time to find a new employer, because it is not straightforward nor easy to find a new sponsor to employ them. During this period, these sponsored migrant workers have no access to public funds, and therefore, risk becoming destitute or vulnerable to deportation or further harm.  

There are no ways in which migrants can safely report exploitative practices without experiencing repercussions either by their sponsors or the Home Office. Sponsored migrant workers have no incentives to report sponsors to any statutory agencies, take legal action or get involved in any trade disputes because any of these actions can lead to either the termination of employment or the revocation of the employers’ sponsorship licence, which in turn will result in the cancellation of their permission to work. If sponsored migrant workers have found no sponsor after the 60 days, they are expected to leave the UK voluntarily, or face deportation. This explains why sponsored migrant workers do not come forward, even when they have no issues with their immigration status. Sponsored migrant 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.

In addition, 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. Exploitation and creating vulnerability for sponsored workers is ingrained in the sponsorship system itself. 

5. Recommendations

This section will answer questions 5 and 6 of the Committee’s inquiry.

There are a number of measures to adapt the Modern Slavery Act 2015 that would help protect sponsored migrant workers from being exposed to or at risk of human trafficking and modern slavery. These include:

  • Prevention: For individuals who are in the process of being granted permission to work or to enter, it must be a legal requirement to enrol on the GLAA level 1 workers’ rights and labour migration law course provided by the sponsoring organisation and delivered by SOLEX or relevant third sector independent organisation. The sponsor must supply the certificate of completion as part of their CoS application. They must also go through a six month refresher course after arrival
  • Protection: Measures to protect sponsored migrant workers when the sponsor has failed to meet their responsibilities. The Home Office must refrain from revoking the sponsors’ licence. Instead, where the threshold is met, they should consider a suspension of the sponsors’ licence in order to protect the sponsored migrant 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 SOLEX organisations who will advocate and support the exploited workers

Migrants at Work and the Migrants’ Rights Network have a large number of additional evidence and case studies. If you require further information or would like to arrange a meeting, please contact us.


¹ Sponsors who commit immigration offences.

² This will change to the ‘Immigration Salary List’ from 4th April 2024.


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