Slavery isn’t a thing of the past – it’s just less visible. Photo: Getty
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Migrant workers are being exploited in the UK – we must take action

Today's Modern Slavery Bill is a vital opportunity to challenge exploitation of workers; slavery isn’t a thing of the past – it’s just less visible.

Just over 200 years on from the abolition of slavery in the UK, it is incomprehensible for many that it should still exist in our society. This is a dangerous assumption, grossly out of sync with the modern forms of slavery which do exist here. Traditional symbols of slavery such as the workhouse may be gone but the abuse, misery and exploitation associated still permeate parts of our community. Slavery isn’t a thing of the past – it’s just less visible.

For example in my own rural constituency of Northeast Cambridgeshire, there is an issue with migrants being brought to the UK under false pretences, often with the promise of a job including accommodation which simply does not exist. Once in the UK they find themselves forced to live in squalid or overcrowded housing, with intermittent work which pushes them into debt and makes them even more vulnerable. 

It is not just those living in these terrible conditions who suffer. Local residents must deal with the knock-on effects of related anti-social behaviour, petty crime, shoplifting and street drinking.

There has been some success in tackling these problems. In November 2013 as part of a national multi-agency award-winning scheme called Operation Pheasant involving the police, the Gangmasters Licencing Authority and the local council, 300 police officers launched a co-ordinated raid on properties in March and Wisbech in my constituency and nearby King’s Lynn. In total eighty-one trafficked migrant workers were rescued from their cramped, overcrowded housing and moved to temporary specialist reception centres set up by the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.

Yet there is little evidence as to what happened to these victims when they left the victim shelters after the maximum fourty-five day period. Nationally the Home Office has no official figures for victims post shelters. I have tabled amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill today to focus attention on this gap. 

Operation Pheasant also resulted in enforcement activity, with ten arrests of those allegedly exploiting workers were made, and these are currently in the courts. Two Fenland-based Gangmaster agencies were shut down and had their licenses permanently revoked by the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority. Accusations against these gangmasters included failure to pay the national minimum wage, failure to provide personal protective equipment for safety at work, failure to provide safe transportation for workers and using unlicensed sub-contractors.

It is imperative that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is given new powers to tackle these issues more effectively under the Modern Slavery Bill. I have tabled a number of new clauses and amendments to the Bill, which will face its third reading in parliament today, designed to strengthen the ability of the GLA to more quickly and effectively punish those abusing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. At a time of limited resource, we need to make it quicker and cheaper to bring investigations and prosecutions. 

Amongst others these include the ability for the GLA to issue civil fines, to freeze the assets of those suspected of exploiting labour within 24-hours and to ensure the independence of the anti-slavery commissioner.

It is estimated that 2,744 people, including 602 children, were potentially victims of trafficking for exploitation last year, an increase of 22 per cent on 2012. In the first quarter of this year there were a further 566 cases. Experts agree that these figures are the tip of the iceberg, with most cases concealed from the authorities. It is likely that there are many more victims than official figures suggest.

Today parliament will take a step forward in tackling modern day slavery. Yet the Bill needs to go much further if it is to deliver real change. Slavery should be consigned to history. For now in constituencies like mine, it remains very present.

Steve Barclay is the Conservative MP for Northeast Cambridgeshire 

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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