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13 Jun 2023

UK: Report commissioned by Mayor highlights abuse & vulnerability of migrant workers in London, incl. intimidation & discrimination

Focus on Labour Exploitation and The Young Foundation have released a report, commissioned by the Mayor of London, focusing on migrants’ experiences of labour abuse in London, along with the challenges faced accessing support. The report includes an analysis of interviews conducted by peer researchers who are themselves London-based migrant workers, alongside desk research and interviews with advice service providers.

The report outlines why migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to labour rights abuse. It conveys how migrants often work in low-paid, unregulated, and informal sectors, where rights abuses are more common, including in sectors such as care, construction, hospitality, and cleaning (the main sectoral focuses of the report). The report also explains how migrants have additional vulnerabilities due to several factors including language barriers, a lack of knowledge about rights, and a lack of recourse to public funds (which can deter migrants from leaving exploitative jobs).

The report outlines abuse across a “continuum” from labour rights violations to forced labour and modern slavery. Exploitation outlined in the report includes:

  • Wage theft and low pay – this was one of the most common issues raised by the interviewees. For examples, workers experienced unpaid overtime and long waits for payment without explanation.
  • Contracts – some workers never received a written contract, while others experienced contract substitution.
  • Unfair and unsafe work practices - migrant workers encountered a range of occupational health and safety issues, predominantly in construction and cleaning sectors.
  • Intimidation and abuse – for example, some workers experienced withheld passports and physical abuse.
  • Discrimination – workers found this common from both employers and colleagues and includes racial discrimination, along with discrimination due to gender or sexuality.

The report goes on to explore the barriers migrants face when seeking support. This includes practical barriers (such as a lack of information, IT barriers, and cost concerns); personal and cultural factors (such as the stigma linked to receiving support, and mental health issues); and the fear of consequences (such as a fear of losing one’s job if the employer is challenged, and fear of deportation). The report also emphasises how systemic issues reduce migrant workers’ ability to seek support, including fragmented labour market enforcement, the impact of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’, and the financial stress of the cost-of-living crisis leading to a fear of losing employment.

Further, the report explores capacity issues relating to the advice and support sector, which include rising demand and limited funding, excessive documentation, and difficulty providing support in complex cases at the intersection of employment and immigration law.

The report makes a number of recommendations, which include building rights awareness among migrant workers, such as through campaigns; greater investment in long-term unrestricted funding; and widening the scope of legal aid to enable organisations to refer clients for legal advice and representation, among other solutions.

Since the publication of the report, the Mayor of London announced £750,000 in funding to boost support for migrant workers in London.

Rights and risks provides important insight into the many barriers that migrant workers face in accessing support and advice in London, with these barriers further exacerbated for those with insecure immigration status. It is crucial that policymakers work to ensure that all workers can access support and justice regardless of their immigration status by introducing secure reporting systems, so that workers can report violations to their rights without worrying their immigration status would be at risk
Lucila Granada, Chief Executive at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)