Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to introduce this short debate. I do so as patron of the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility. Its recent report on migrant workers focuses particularly on the responsibility of companies, but its concerns go wider than this to include government regulation in this field, which is our concern this evening.
As we all know, when workers are vulnerable, it means that their work is insecure and low paid and they are at high risk of employment rights abuses. A typical example is a London cleaner who said, “I work for an agency. I’m ‘self-employed’. They pay me £2.29 per room. I can’t clean enough rooms to make the minimum wage. There is no sick pay or holiday pay, and I have to pay for my own cleaning materials and uniform out of my wages”. Some 2 million people in this country are in vulnerable employment, and migrant workers form a very significant percentage of them. Most obtain work through one of the 17,000 employment agencies that form the largest and most fragmented agency sector in Europe and are worth some £25 billion. These agencies employ more than 1.25 million workers, about 4.5 per cent of the workforce. They are particularly relevant to migrant workers. More than 700,000 EU immigrants have entered the UK since May 2004, and a very good number of them are employed through these agencies.
Since the Morecambe Bay disaster in February 2003, when 23 Chinese cockle pickers were drowned, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has been set up to prevent similar tragedies. Its remit covers the agricultural, forestry, horticultural, shellfish gathering, food processing and food packaging industries. There seems to be general agreement that in these sectors the GLA has had a significant impact. It licences about 1,230 gangmasters and has some 180,000 workers on its database. Abuses that were once quite common have been greatly reduced. There are still some further actions the GLA can take to ensure that its work is even more effective, but I shall not consider them in detail this evening.
However, the trade union Unite is concerned about two issues in particular. First, although the Government have signed up to the European directive, current drafts for implementation of that directive are still lacking in many areas. This means that unscrupulous employers can exploit loopholes. Secondly, it believes that there need to be much stronger linkages between the various employment rights enforcement agencies and greater resources and priority put on enforcement. In addition, there is still the major problem of unlicensed agencies in its sector; perhaps 25 to 40 per cent of gangmasters within its remit are at present unlicensed.
However, the setting up of the GLA has shown that in areas where abuses were once very prevalent, they have now been significantly reduced and curtailed. The implication of this is clear. Where there are abuses of vulnerable migrant workers in other areas, an effective means of stopping them exists. There are abuses in other areas of employment, particularly in the construction, hospitality and care sectors. Unscrupulous gangmasters, thwarted in their original areas of employment, have shifted their focus.
There is also the phenomenon of what have been labelled phoenix companies, whose licences have been withheld but which quickly emerge under another name to employ workers who are vulnerable. Many of those workers will be made to work for long hours on less than the minimum wage in unsatisfactory conditions, perhaps with exorbitant deductions for accommodation or transport.
There are many such examples. I shall briefly cite two, one of which is from the construction industry. “I was working 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, as an apprentice plumber. I was being paid about £1.84 an hour. My employer said this was normal and I should be grateful. Then he attacked me because I asked for a copy of my terms and conditions”. One agency charged a worker £250 for his clothes: a pair of trousers, two T-shirts and a sweatshirt. He called it his Versace gear.
When this issue has been raised before, both in this House and in the other place, the Government have said that the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate has the responsibility for dealing with such abuses and is capable of doing so. I do not like to be critical, and I know that the EAS inspectorate is currently running a £1.25 million campaign to raise awareness of employment rights among vulnerable agency workers, but, to date, Oxfam and other researchers have found migrant workers to have little or no knowledge of either the EAS inspectorate or their employment rights. Indeed, not a single migrant worker was aware of the EAS inspectorate before the visit of a researcher. The EAS inspectorate is still poorly resourced, with only one inspector for every 700 agencies. There is little support among businesses for its work because of the lack of enforcement, and it has succeeded in recovering very little money for illegally withheld workers’ wages.
This is a technical field in which I have no competence, but I can report that those who do—relevant trade unions, Oxfam and others who have done the research—believe that the only effective remedy for the abuses in the construction, hospitality and care industries is to extend the remit of the GLA to cover them. The GLA has shown that it works effectively, it has the confidence of businesses and, as a bonus, it actually recovers significant amounts of VAT for the taxpayer.
As I say, there is significant exploitation in the construction industry. Estimates of the numbers of construction workers with unclear employment status vary from 200,000 to 1 million. I shall cite an example of the kind of abuse that has been uncovered. “I’ve done jobs in all parts of the country: Leicester, Leeds, Manchester. You’re taken in the back of a van, and sometimes I don't even know where I've been when I get back. The vans are overcrowded, unsafe, uncomfortable. The gangmaster phones you and says ‘Come to a certain place, a certain road junction at 5 am’. So you go and wait. Sometimes you work for a week, including Saturday and Sunday, and might get just £50. You don't get a wage slip; it’s cash in hand. The transport to and from the jobs often eats up most of the money. Often you sleep on the site. The gangmasters have a way of hooking you in. You work for a week and they pay you, but next week they won't pay you. They ask you to come back next week and they pay you for this, but they still owe you one or two weeks’ wages so you can't really leave them”. There is also, of course, a great lack of health and safety among such vulnerable workers.
This kind of abuse is no less prevalent in the hospitality sector. Many hotels no longer employ people directly but prefer to go through an agency. One union organiser noted that the hotels must be aware of the exploitation because, “It’s happening so frequently right under their noses in almost every hotel”. One cleaner reports, “I’m cleaning rooms in a small hotel with 20 rooms. I got the job through an agency when I was still in Spain. The hotel pays me £25 for eight hours’ work. They pay me cash in hand, with no wage slip. I know they should pay me the minimum wage, but what can I do? The agency won't defend me or help me with this”. She is charged exorbitant prices for accommodation in a very crowded, unsafe house, and says, “It’s a big agency on the internet supplying people to work in hotels all over London”.
More research is needed in the care sector, but even there the research that has been done shows significant levels of abuse. We have to remember that we are an ageing population. In 2007, 28 per cent of those recruited to work in this sector were migrant workers, and it is clear that already there is some evidence of abuse.
In 2008, the Home Affairs Select Committee noted that outside the GLA sectors, enforcement is at best patchy and at worst non-existent. The GLA, whatever improvements are still needed, has shown that it can make a big impact. Just a couple of days ago I talked to someone whose company employs hundreds of migrant workers. He told me that the existence of the GLA had in fact totally transformed his relationship with migrant workers and he had confidence in the authority. There is a clear case for extending its remit to include the construction, hospitality and care sectors. I very much look forward to hearing what the Government have to say and to learning something from the other speakers in tonight’s debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for securing this debate and introducing it with the kind of conviction and commitment that we have come to expect of him. Since those days in the 1980s when there was a lot of privatisation and liberalisation, much work has been done by successive Governments to protect employees, but sadly not in relation to the growing number of vulnerable workers. They have fewer rights, and even those they have are not fully enforced.
Vulnerable migrant workers are subject to exploitation at various levels. Illegal deductions are made from their wages, they are given false assurances about the nature of their jobs before they come to this country, many do not enjoy sick or holiday pay, and sometimes they are falsely classified as self-employed so that the normal regulations do not apply. In some cases, particularly in the hospitality industry, piece-rates are paid with the result that almost 18 per cent of migrant workers in this sector are paid below the minimum wage. All these are disturbing facts, but unfortunately migrant workers are not in a position to complain or to secure redress. That is because they do not know their rights, their language skills are limited, there is anxiety among both legal and illegal migrant workers over their immigration status, and they do not have the financial resources to prosecute those involved in exploitative practices. A great deal therefore needs to be done.
Happily, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has been doing interesting work in this area, but it has its limits. In the next few minutes, I want to suggest six or seven different ways in which the work of the GLA could be improved. First, it is striking that between 25 and 40 per cent of gangmasters are not licensed, so something needs to be done to make sure that they are properly examined and licensed, and that unlicensed gangmasters are not allowed to operate. Secondly, the GLA shares information with the UK Border Agency. As a result, the information it obtains has to do with how migrant workers have come to this country. Naturally, these workers are fearful of how the information will be used and are not in a position to trust the GLA. It is therefore important that the authority’s task should have nothing to do with the immigration status of these workers.
Thirdly, the GLA needs greater resources than it has at present to conduct better in-depth assessments of gangmasters, collect intelligence on the worst forms of exploitation, and make more frequent unannounced visits. Fourthly, it should have the power to impose heavier penalties than it does at the moment. I gather that the GLA has already made several proposals in this direction and I hope very much that the Government will look upon them favourably. Fifthly, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, rightly pointed out, the remit of the GLA needs to extend into areas which at present are not covered. I have in mind the care, construction and hospitality sectors, especially construction and hospitality where many of these exploitative practices tend to occur. Sixthly, the trade unions should be more actively involved in inspecting workplaces, particularly those where vulnerable migrant workers are not in a position to complain and GLA inspections are not as probing as they could be. It is therefore important that trade unions should inspect workplaces and report cases of abuse.
Finally, we need to depend not only on the GLA—useful and important as it is—but to ensure that it is able to establish strong links with trade unions, voluntary organisations and migrant community organisations. All these organisations need to work together and co-ordinate their strategies in order to raise awareness of the rights that the migrant workers have and the abuses to which they are subject.
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, is not in his place because he led a very interesting debate on this subject in which several of us spoke. My noble friend has made a strong case for improving the law. It is not easy to define vulnerability or the rights of vulnerable citizens, but when it comes to vulnerable migrants we must try harder.
During the passage of immigration legislation I have been primarily concerned with the rights of asylum seekers and, generally, I congratulate the Government on their migration policy. I was disappointed during the BBC’s “Question Time” that the three main political parties did not stand up to the BNP representative and proclaim the success of migration. We need to claim not only that numbers are coming down or that historically this country has a good reputation, but that by accepting skilled migrants today we are enriching our society and supporting our economy. We need to hear this message more often from the Government.
If there is any increase in support for the BNP—which I doubt because the programme will have put a lot of people off—then it does not help the Government to compete with the policies of the BNP and water down their stand against racism and in favour of migration. As a former member of the Independent Asylum Commission, I am fully persuaded of the case for certain categories of migrants from outside the EU to be allowed into the country with temporary work permits. I am thinking especially of skilled Zimbabweans, some of whom have sought asylum here. But they are not really asylum seekers; they are waiting patiently for a genuine political reform and economic stability in their country. Has the Minister detected any change in heart towards these people?
It seems that the backlog of so-called “illegal” immigrants and asylum seekers has defeated the Government. I have a lot of sympathy with the Strangers into Citizens campaign for an amnesty which would allow some of the more vulnerable irregular migrant workers to seek jobs legally and pay taxes like other citizens.
Tomorrow we continue the Report stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill and my noble friend Lady Young has again tabled her amendment proposing a new offence of forced labour or servitude. The use of the term “servitude” is not exaggerated; there are hundreds of victims of forced labour in this country, including domestic workers, some of whom are literally imprisoned in private houses. My noble friend has mentioned unscrupulous employers so I shall concentrate on the domestic group.
Much of what I say is guided by a recent meeting that my noble friend Lady Young and I attended with Patience, a migrant domestic worker originally recruited in Nigeria for a domestic position in London. She worked long hours, was given no day off and was never given the £50 a week originally promised. Her employer told her, “Your money is safe with me”. When she made a mistake she was pinched and slapped, and she was not allowed to leave the house even to buy a phone card to make a call home. She told us that her employer “beat me until I cried, so loud that a neighbour even knocked on the door”. However, hers is a success story because eventually she was able to make contact with Kalayaan, a respected NGO which helps domestic workers, and her employer was taken to the tribunal and eventually charged with assault and theft.
The Minister, more than any of us because of his long experience in this field, will be able to quote the International Labour Organisation conventions ILO 25 on forced labour and ILO 105 on the abolition of forced labour. ILO 25 states:
“The illegal exaction of forced or compulsory labour shall be punishable as a penal offence, and it shall be an obligation on any Member ratifying this Convention to ensure that the penalties imposed by law are really adequate and are strictly enforced”.
The Minister will know that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, wrote a letter to my noble friend on 13 October in which he tacitly recognised that the law needed to be changed but said that there was no compelling reason to change it. I accept that a new offence may be difficult to prove, but I also know that the current offences are proving to be inadequate. The Government have made great advances, such as the 2003 Act on trafficking and the gangmasters Act, which has also been mentioned, but I was surprised to read in the letter that there was no evidence that people are currently escaping justice, when case after case is being quoted by lawyers and non-governmental organisations. I was concerned to read that the Government apparently need to make a new assessment of the scale of the problem. We are always hearing Ministers retreat behind reviews and consultations when there are already specialised organisations with the evidence required.
I am impressed by the briefing provided by the ecumenical council because it displays a whole range of measures and opportunities that the Government could take up—for example, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has mentioned, strengthening and extending the powers of the GLA. It must be sensible to ensure that the authority covers construction workers and other sectors but also to release it from its duty in immigration control, which is holding up a lot of its other work. The Migrants’ Rights Network has been lucid on this subject. Personally, I am not certain that the GLA would be able to handle domestic workers directly, but I know its work would be encouraged by my noble friend’s amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, is not convinced that the European convention requires the Government to enact a separate and specific offence, but Article 4 imposes on public authorities in the UK an obligation to protect people from slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour. I hope therefore that the Minister can say that the Government will think again before tomorrow evening when we return to this issue.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for highlighting the plight of those in vulnerable employment in our country. Like the noble Earl, I am grateful for the work of the Migrants’ Rights Network in arguing for the need for the clear protection of workers’ rights at a time when there is increasing pressure to ensure that the immigration status of migrants is checked and checked again.
One of the results of making UK employers responsible for the immigration status of their employees has too often been that such workers have not been able to campaign freely for better conditions, or even for decent wages. The worker registration scheme is long-winded and taxing, and people come to fear that somewhere there may be an error in their documentation that could lead to their being thrown out of work altogether.
In seeking to involve migrant workers in the life of the local community, one of the most effective areas of integration is that of Integration Lincolnshire, set up in order to affirm the rights of migrant workers in that county and to ensure that they are seen as a group that has come and contributed greatly to the life of that community. I hope that the way in which people who come to this country contribute to its life and common aims and values will again be stressed.
However, rural workers in Lincolnshire lose their jobs simply because of the complexity and inefficiency of the system. Integration Lincolnshire has been concerned with people found camping by the River Witham in Boston, unable either to find work or to return home. Documents become lost in the system, and that complexity damages us all.
Like the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, I welcome the work of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. However, even there, as so often in these areas, there can be unintended consequences. One of them is that gangmasters much less frequently have a policy of providing housing for those who come as vulnerable workers because that housing will be audited. I suggest not that the gangmasters licensing requirements be altered so that housing is not audited, but that there needs to be careful examination to ensure that family members not directly involved as gangmasters do not set up to provide housing of a much lower standard than the audit requires.
I stress the pressure that is on those who have protection needs. The time limitations make it increasingly difficult for such people to find stable, well paid work, so they quite unnecessarily become vulnerable in their work. One of the unintended consequences of the earned citizenship proposals is that the period of uncertainty is extended yet again, meaning that migrants with protection needs will find themselves in low-paid and temporary employment. They are not able to guarantee long-term commitment to employers or to higher education courses. The result is that community cohesion becomes less easy to achieve, because migrant workers with protection needs appear not to be willing to work. They are then viewed as lazy and as uncomfortable neighbours at exactly the point when they should be able to contribute to our wider society.
We are placing ever greater burdens on those who are keen to contribute to and want to repay our society through paid employment. I think of those in Leeds whom I meet who are trained in their own countries and who cannot access employment here—doctors, teachers, social workers—for whom the downward spiral begins again. Their very frustration leads to mental health problems and they find themselves either dependent on benefits or in secret, low-paid, vulnerable jobs with no security and without the protection which we rightly regard as vital to workers’ well-being.
I continue to believe that permission to work for asylum seekers awaiting a decision would be the most valuable key to community cohesion that the Government could introduce. I am haunted by thoughts of those whom I know who cannot legally work and whose support has recently been cut. Such permission would protect them from unscrupulous employers and dangerous working conditions. At present, people often find work of a sort and become extremely vulnerable in it. It would benefit the economy and communities to allow them to seek proper work, and it would significantly relieve the dangers to which so many noble Lords are pointing in this welcome debate.
My Lords, as ever the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has given us the opportunity to debate something both topical and of human interest. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that one way in which to protect migrant workers’ rights is to encourage a culture of acceptance. We should be clear about the benefits that migrant workers create—the benefits to their country by virtue of the money that they send back, the immigrants who return home with newly acquired skills and the training and larger horizons that they acquire here, and the benefits to the host country by virtue of the economic contribution that they make and the social and cultural benefits of diversity. I agree that we are too small a country to afford an open-door policy but, equally, if immigrants stopped coming, we would become a much poorer nation and a less interesting place.
What are the facts? From 1995 to 2005, the standard of living in this country rose considerably, as did immigration. Some 55,000 foreign workers were granted the right to settle here in 1995. Ten years later, the number had risen to 179,000. Since 2004, an equally large number have come from the European Union member states.
Migration is often a search for greater opportunity. Nowadays many migrants are women, often leaving traditional societies to seek greater opportunities for themselves, as well as work. It is a mark of our success that they choose to come here. They get the protection mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord.
My noble friend Lord Parekh mentioned illegal migrant workers. Of course, the situation is made more complicated by illegal immigration. Unscrupulous people exploit them and can do harm to migrants who are here illegally. But it is the exploiters—often their employers and the people traffickers—who do much of the harm. It is they who must be brought before the courts, as the Government are absolutely right to emphasise.
At the same time, I should like the Government to emphasise more the advantages of migration, particularly the freedom of movement within the European Union. Membership of the European Union gives us three basic freedoms: the movement of goods, of capital and of people. It is the freedom of people and migration within the European Union that European citizens value most. Ask your friends, especially those who are retired; ask your children and your grandchildren. What they value most is the right to study, live, work, marry and travel freely in the European Union. That freedom is valued throughout the European Union and it is a very important part of the migration equation. We should be hearing a lot more about it.
It is unimaginable that we would go back to the past. The genuine diversity, particularly in our cities, and the economic vitality brought about by immigration have become part of our way of life. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is concerned about immigrant workers’ rights and gangmasters, as am I—not only from the point of view of the workers’ human and employee rights but because we need to continue to benefit from the economic, social and cultural contributions made by the immigrants who come here and from our fellow citizens who choose to migrate elsewhere.
Somebody once said that success is getting what you want and happiness is getting what you need. Let us have laws and regulations that make migrants happy and a culture that makes them successful.
My Lords, I am sure that I echo the sentiment around the House when I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for raising this important and rather saddening issue of public policy. We live in a society where immigrants are broadly unpopular. I speak as the granddaughter of four immigrants to this country: two refugees and two who were what might have been called—although they would have been surprised— migrant workers. I am also the daughter of a refugee mother from Nazi Germany. I have some family connection with these issues.
Like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, I believe that skilled migrants can bring economic and other gain to this country—great cultural richness. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, I believe that allowing asylum seekers to work legally would do much for community cohesion and, indeed, for their own happiness. However, at the moment there is a sense out there among the public that people are being smuggled into this country to work either as forced labourers, in forced prostitution, for example, or simply to earn far more money than they would earn at home. You have a picture of crime, exploitation, fear and public suspicion.
That was, I fear, tragically true of the public response to the Chinese cockle pickers who were drowned on Morecambe Sands in 2004. The public felt sorry for the people but not at all sure about the practices of gangmasters. One can understand that. To set the story in its context—and this is what most of the public think when they hear about migrant workers, if they do not simply feel a deep unease—the gangmaster concerned was himself Chinese, he recruited Chinese cocklers, he provided the equipment and he apparently shared the profits. He was accused and found guilty of gross negligence, which led to the cocklers drowning, but he, along with his girlfriend, also helped people to breach immigration law. He had first got into cockling about a year earlier in Barrow-in-Furness and he was recruited into organising a cockling group by someone who offered to buy the cockles from him.
Here is the story. In order to extend his visa to stay in the country, he had registered at a London college, which offered English language courses, but he said that he never actually attended lessons. In his court appearance, he said that he had been instructed by the man running the college, Mr Chan, to familiarise himself with the buildings in case he was investigated by the immigration authorities. He said:
“I was told if the Home Office investigates that college, at least I know where is the college”.
Before that, he had made a poor living—he was himself exploited—in Merseyside washing up in Chinese restaurants. So here we have it—gangmasters, false college courses, tricking the immigration authorities and, of course, the deaths of the Chinese workers who were drowned when the tide came in. Those Chinese received considerable public sympathy, but their gangmaster and others like him did not.
We want the cheap food, yet cockling, fruit picking and other supplies to the food industry all too often come from exploited workers. ECCR’s research into nine large British food companies, ranging from Northern Foods to Morrisons, suggested that, while all take some responsibility for what goes on lower down the food chain, by no means all do anything to ensure migrant workers’ welfare. Nor do any of them incentivise the suppliers of food who use migrant workers to improve the conditions of those people. In the survey, Northern Foods, Sainsbury’s and Tesco came out way ahead, but even they—and there was some impressive practice—did not do huge amounts to help. Adding to that what we know about fake colleges and fake courses— that has been somewhat tightened up—and you have a recipe for keen exploitation of workers by others, people who are often migrants with few rights, little English, few friends and little knowledge of our system. That is why this issue is one that the Government have to take on sympathetically rather than simply arguing for firm action. Many of these people have been in this country and treated appallingly for many years.
These days, employers are increasingly involved in immigration enforcement issues. They are expected to check papers and, since the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, brought in by this Government, they find themselves subject to recorded increases in raids on workplaces and employer fines, especially since the new civil penalty regime for immigration check failures came into force last year. Because of all that, many employers are erring on the side of caution, as the Migrants’ Rights Network has reported, because they are so worried about getting it wrong and because the guidance—some 80 pages long—is rather complicated. Interviews for the Migrants’ Rights Network’s Papers Please report show that this may well mean that employers dismiss, or decline to engage, migrant workers who cannot provide clear and unambiguous evidence of a regular immigration status. This particularly affects refugees, migrants varying their leave and A2 migrants—Romanians and Bulgarians—whose need for documentation emerged as unclear while the interviews were being conducted.
The worst evidence comes from the cleaning and hospitality sectors, where vulnerable undocumented migrants often work in unsuitable and dangerous conditions, as many noble Lords have said. The report documented incidents that include employers forcing workers who could not produce adequate documentation to resign. They called in the UK Border Agency to ambush workers in the workplace and dismissed workers, withholding back pay.
All the emphasis on immigration enforcement in the workplace is clearly having a negative effect on vulnerable migrant workers’ capacity to campaign for better treatment and conditions. Papers Please suggested that immigration checks had been used by employers to disrupt collective action under the ongoing living-wage campaigns carried out by contract cleaners in various workplaces in London. It was alleged that this had been a factor in the raid on SOAS in June, when eight migrant workers were arrested and seven removed from the country as a result of the raid.
The Gangmasters Licensing Authority also requires employers to carry out a check, which may inhibit the GLA’s own ability to protect the rights and interests of those vulnerable and undocumented workers. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds has made it clear that we ought to think differently about this.
What needs to happen now? First, the Home Office needs to inform and educate employers about how to remain within the law on immigration without resorting to discriminatory practices, which is what we are seeing. The present information materials are far too geared towards fostering fear and mistrust of migrant workers and not enough towards the race equality implications of the regulations.
Secondly, the present reliance on holding an appropriate immigration status to access any employment rights enables vulnerable migrant workers to be exploited at will. This is not so very different from how, in my own Jewish community, some factory owners used to exploit the newcomers just off the boats in the sweatshops, as they were called, in the East End of London in the 1880s and 1890s. It must be possible for various employment standards agencies, such as the Fair Employment Enforcement Board, the national minimum wage inspectorate and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, to ensure that employment rights are protected, irrespective of immigration status. Can the Government assure the House that they will look at ways of ensuring that that happens? In particular, will they consider removing the GLA’s present concern with the immigration status of workers in favour of a real and deep concern with the welfare of vulnerable people, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has said?
Thirdly, can the Government ensure that the GLA’s remit is extended, as many, including Oxfam, Unite and various other unions, have suggested, at a minimum to the construction, hospitality and social care sectors, where abuse and exploitation are the norm? I have seen it with my own eyes in care homes, where migrant workers—now some 28 per cent of the workforce—who speak little English and work appalling hours for below the minimum wage are dispirited and living in poor conditions. They are then expected, by us, to care for our nearest and dearest.
There is one further point. Some organisations, notably the ECCR and Strangers into Citizens, are calling for one-off regularisation of long-term irregular migrant workers in the UK. Belgium is doing just this as a one-off action, running from mid-September this year to December. It is expected to bring thousands of undocumented migrants back within the scope of the protection of the law. Ireland, where I live for part of the year, has recognised the need to do the same. The Irish Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, announced on 15 September that bridging visas giving temporary legal residence for four months will be available for people who have become undocumented through no fault of their own.
Will the Minister assure the House that the UK Government will look at the moves being made in Belgium and Ireland and see whether we could do something similar? Will he also assure the House that he will take seriously the real and deep concern of us all that asking the GLA to consider the immigration status of employees is militating against the most vulnerable of workers, who are caught in a net not of their own making and are often very frightened?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for securing this important debate.
The subject of vulnerable migrant workers’ rights is attracting increasing attention. This is not just because of some of the well-publicised tragedies, such as the deaths of 23 cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay, which the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, mentioned. As she rightly said, opinion was mixed on that subject as people felt very sorry for the cockle pickers but were not at all sure that they should have been here. However, she also rightly said that this country benefits immensely from migration of all kinds.
I detect that we are talking about at least three sets of people: the transient workers; those who are here on a much longer term basis, who are basically settlers but are also subject to exploitation, partly as a result of having poor skills in relation to being able to protect themselves and their rights; and a third group, which can comprise some of the other two, most particularly the first, who have become involved in a web of illegal activity in that they carry out illegal activity but are also exploited. We should all be concerned about the growth in organised crime committed on our soil.
The point was well made, I believe by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that people who come to this country are often given totally misleading information about what they are likely to encounter and what their legitimate expectations should be. When they get to this country, they discover that the situation is extraordinarily different. Many of these people are not in a position to protect their rights as they have poor language skills, very little knowledge, and there is nobody to help them. As has been said on these Benches, we need to consider the whole question of helping people to acquire English language skills, which makes them more effective workers and helps them to protect themselves. They become more resilient citizens sooner and that must be in the general interest.
The scale of the challenge is significant. While net immigration into the UK last year was 44 per cent lower than in the previous year, the number of people who came in—more than 118,000—is still far from insignificant. It is a mistake to think that only illegal immigration, which I shall come to in a moment, results in the exploitation of migrants. The UK’s threat assessment for serious and organised crime says:
“Legal migrants are also vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, especially those from the new European Union … member states as they represent a large proportion of economic migrants and can work legally without a visa, therefore not requiring facilitation or false documentation”.
Paradoxically, this makes them more rather than less vulnerable to exploitative employers because they are easy to pick up. You do not have to do a great deal about covering your tracks; you can take them in because they are here legally. The Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forum has found that poor language skills—this makes workers vulnerable even though they may be skilled—and a lack of awareness of their rights are key factors in the vulnerability of migrant workers. It is very important that we should not just care for these people but help them to help themselves. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us how the Government are trying to raise awareness of workers’ rights in EU states before people come to the UK.
Many noble Lords have noted that there are also problems with organised immigration crime. A particularly vivid picture of that was painted by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. People-smuggling and human trafficking are particularly odious forms of organised crime as they deal in human lives. People are treated like commodities, as if they were inanimate property. Exploitation is characteristic of both the immigration process and the subsequent treatment. Human trafficking is defined by the intention to exploit illegal immigrants once they are here. They do not bring these people in and then dump them; they bring them in to subsequently exploit what they can get out of them. Even when these individuals are willing participants in their own smuggling, the UK’s threat assessment notes that they can,
“become victims of trafficking during their journey or find themselves vulnerable to exploitation on arrival at their destination”.
We know this, and we need to try to do something about it.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds said two interesting things. First, he talked about people without skills, but secondly also in this category are people who are not necessarily being directly exploited by organised criminals, but who have skills and are not able to use them. They come here on a different basis and they find that there are barriers, such as doctors whom we cannot employ. They lose and we lose. Personal unhappiness, misery and decline can result. It seems to me that there is a lot that we could do in individual instances as well as in general policy to ease some of these difficulties.
The think tank CentreForum has said that there are an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants in Britain, who are largely working in the underground economy. There are suggestions of amnesty for these individuals, which is a difficult issue. There are those who consider that it sends out the wrong message to give amnesty to such people, and others think that it is a humane way of dealing with the existing situation. I would be interested in the Minister’s comments.
I shall come to the question of those who are engaged in exploiting people. The UK is beginning to look like a rather attractive place to people who are involved in immigration crime. I will give some examples. Of the 19 people who were convicted of trafficking for sexual exploitation in 2008, four received suspended sentences. In that year, there were only four convictions for trafficking for the purpose of forced labour. There is a question mark over those convictions. The average sentence for human trafficking is just 4.69 years. The final figure to note is that of the 3,200 employers of illegal immigrants who were arrested in 2008, only 14 were successfully prosecuted. Do we not all think that part of the key to bringing down the levels of exploitation is to go after those who are really engaged in that exploitation? Some are themselves victims, but there are a significant number who are not victims and who are knowingly exploiting people. They are making money out of it and they do not care about the effects of their actions.
One of the keys to enforcement must be a more rigorous use of investigation and the judicial process. It is all very well laying a burden, as it is right to, on employers to make sure that their employees are there legally and have a right to work, but it is also important that the authorities follow up when they discover that illegality is going on. We need to use the courts. I would be grateful to the Minister if he could give us a commentary on the figures that I have just cited. The UK needs to get much more serious than it is at present about detecting and prosecuting organised immigration crime. The sentencing also ought to reflect our values about human life more closely than it seems to. It seems to me that in many respects the sentencing is not more severe than it is for property-related convictions.
There are some gaps in the law. Last year, the Government dropped measures to increase civil penalties for employers found using illegal labour that had appeared in the draft immigration and citizenship Bill. A number of noble Lords rightly mentioned that the Coroners and Justice Bill presents us with another opportunity to tackle these issues by creating a clear offence of holding a person in servitude or subjecting them to forced or compulsory labour. Matrix Chambers has confirmed how important this is, stating that,
“the existing criminal law offences pertaining to trafficking, the slave trade, false imprisonment and kidnapping are not apt to cover all offences of servitude”.
This point was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. I would be grateful if the Minister will outline the Government’s position.
Discussion of the sex sector leads me to my last point. A number of noble Lords have talked about extending the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. One noble Lord rightly mentioned that the authority had been effective in reducing the level of exploitation in the sectors that it covered. Proposals have been made to extend the authority’s remit. We understand the motivation for this and are sympathetic to it. However, we must be careful, particularly in a recession, that we do not drive up costs in sectors such as hospitality, with its implications for waiters’ wages, and thereby drive more people underground to earn less. We must be careful how we do it, because costs are an issue.
Overall, we must seek a better policy balance between enforcing the law and treating individuals who are victims of these rapacious activities with sympathy and understanding. Will the Minister say how the Government will improve the enforcement of legislation in this area? There are other aspects to the problem, particularly ensuring that those who consciously, willingly and deliberately engage in exploitation of humans and are part of people-trafficking rings should suffer the penalties of the law. They are a big pull factor for illegal migration. If they are dealt with, we will be able to deal more readily with other policies that flow from their actions.
My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, on the timeliness of the debate. Protection of vulnerable workers is something that the Government are committed to. We must protect all vulnerable workers, including vulnerable migrant workers.
It might be useful to start with our definition. A vulnerable worker is defined by the Government as someone working in an environment where the risk of being denied employment rights is high, and who does not have the capacity to protect themselves from that abuse. Both these factors must be present. It could be someone who has a poor knowledge of their rights, someone who is not fluent in English or someone who is dependent on their employer for accommodation. If that worker’s employer exploits this weakness and the person has nowhere to go for help, they are vulnerable. If there is no human resources department to go to or union to talk to, they will be a vulnerable worker. The question for the Government is how best to protect vulnerable workers.
In the fascinating debate that we have had, a number of proposals have been made, which I will come to. However, if noble Lords will forgive me, I will avoid trespassing on matters that we will debate in the Coroners and Justice Bill in the next 24 hours—I would not be thanked by anyone for going down that road.
The Government are saying that there should be no hiding place for employers who exploit vulnerable workers and who are not prepared to obey the law. Migrant workers with an entitlement to work in the UK have rights like any other workers. We have launched a major programme to support vulnerable workers following the report of the business department’s Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forum, published last year. The programme is being implemented to raise vulnerable worker awareness of basic employment rights, as was mentioned by one noble Lord, and to ensure that those rights are enforced effectively.
The first thing that we have done is to streamline access to the enforcement bodies, and I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord Young sitting in his place. In September he launched a new, free, single enforcement helpline known as the Pay and Work Rights Helpline. In case Hansard is read more widely than we imagine, I should say that the number is 0800 917 2368. This replaced five separate helplines, and the new line enables workers to obtain information and advice, and report abuses, all via one number. It covers the national and agricultural minimum wages, working time infringements and potential abuses of employment agency and gangmaster regulations—something that we have heard quite a lot about in this debate. As proof that some of the anecdotal evidence put forward tonight is supported by others, I am pleased to say that it is effective, as it receives 600 calls a day. On the other hand, I am not so pleased, as that shows that there is a real problem.
I was also pleased that when the helpline was launched it secured strong backing from organisations that do a lot of work with vulnerable people—Citizens Advice, the Trades Union Congress and others—which saw it as a very valuable new tool in seeking to protect vulnerable workers. It makes it easier for workers to report abuses and, of course, for the Government to respond.
An understanding of English is something that we wish to see. Now, under the five-tier system, people coming to Britain are expected to have basic English but that is not the case with many vulnerable migrant workers. Translation facilities in more than 100 languages are available for all who need them so that migrant workers can report abuses and we can take them on board and seek to resolve them. This measure is already showing success in raising awareness and is part of a major campaign, which extends beyond the telephone helpline that I mentioned. We are using national newspapers, as well as women’s magazines and radio advertising, and those are supplemented by face-to-face advertising in selected locations and specific ethnic-minority communities.
A strand of the campaign is aimed at new Europeans, by which I mean those who joined the EU some years ago—a point also mentioned by noble Lords—be they Lithuanians, Slovaks, Poles, Bulgarians, Latvians or what have you. Awareness-raising material has been produced in these languages and is being published in relevant media for those migrant communities. We are also focusing on spreading the message within communities by sending mail-outs to community leaders, business organisations and the relevant embassies.
We have also ensured that workers coming to the UK following the 2004 accession, and the subsequent accession of Bulgaria and Romania, have been provided with information concerning both their rights and their responsibilities. We have offered to work with the Governments of all the new member states—a valuable point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones—to ensure that people know before they go that this is not a country where the streets are paved with gold, and that people seeking to separate them from large amounts of hard-earned money in their own countries to be smuggled here are providing a totally false prospectus. To date, we have also produced leaflets in partnership with the Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian and Portuguese Governments aimed at ensuring that all potential migrants are aware of both their rights and their responsibilities before they leave their country. Indeed, we reinforce that on their arrival into the United Kingdom.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, asked what we are doing to toughen up enforcement of the existing laws. In particular, we want to see the enforcement of employment rights. We have strengthened the penalties for failing to comply with employment law in order to increase the deterrent effect. Provisions in the Employment Act 2008, which came into effect this April, introduced automatic penalties for non-compliance with the national minimum wage. These have already been used more than 80 times. In the first quarter of this financial year, HM Revenue and Customs, which enforces the minimum wage, identified over £2 million of arrears owed to more than 6,000 workers.
The Act also brought in changes making employment agency regulations indictable so they can be tried in a Crown Court, where tougher penalties are available. Perhaps that meets the concern that we need to move to tougher penalties and enforcement.
Significant effort has been put into the profile of the employment and enforcement agencies, particularly the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, which previously lacked visibility. We doubled the number of inspectors from 12 to 24. A major advertising campaign was launched which promoted awareness of agency-worker protections and the role of the EAS. It is carrying out intelligence-led blitzes and is having increasing success in returning money to workers who have had pay illegally withheld. Twice the amount has been recovered this year compared with the previous year.
Criticism was voiced by noble Lords about the need for more joined-up action and better and effective collaboration between the enforcement agencies. Action is being taken to address legal barriers which, in some cases, constrain the extent to which enforcement officers can share information with each other about potentially non-compliant employers. An amendment in last year’s Employment Act, which took effect in April, established an information gateway between the national minimum wage and employment agency inspectors. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is currently consulting on proposals for a legislative reform order to amend primary legislation to address the limited number of remaining barriers. We are already seeing better targeted and effective enforcement action with enforcement bodies increasingly acting as the eyes and ears for each other, and collaborating to make best use of the enforcement powers that are available.
It might be appropriate at this point to turn to the question raised by my noble friend Lord Parekh and the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, on the GLA interface with the UK Border Agency and exchange of information. The Government believe that the GLA needs to share information with the UK Border Agency on immigration status because it is likely that an immigration offence is being committed by the employer. Without that information, action would be difficult to take. There are new resource requirements for an extension of the GLA and in many other areas. The Government are putting new resources for compliance and enforcement from the migration impacts fund, which include around £3 million over two years to workplace enforcement bodies. The HM Revenue and Customs has a project establishing a dedicated team to respond to problems in hotspots where there is evidence that employers are using migrant labour to undercut legitimate employers by paying below the national minimum wage.
The HSE is undertaking projects to increase awareness of health and safety law among migrant groups, particularly in construction and agriculture. The GLA is taking on five enforcement officers to work in communities in Lincolnshire, Devon, Cornwall, Cambridge, London and the south-east to ensure that migrant workers’ employment rights are enforced. There is also a union modernisation fund commitment that supports the building industry unions in their work with vulnerable migrant workers. We have set out details of oversight, to ensure that those involved at all levels have part of the control of how we deal with the problem. A further employment enforcement board is chaired by the Employment Relations Minister in another place and brings together the enforcement bodies and the key external stakeholders, such as the CBI, TUC and Citizens Advice. It meets regularly to help drive the Government’s vulnerable worker programme and to encourage more joint working and collaboration between enforcement agencies.
The point was made several times about the extension of GLA licensing. There was broad support for that from a number of quarters. There was also considerable praise for the work of the GLA, which I would share. However, we have to understand that 25 per cent of gangmasters remain unlicensed and, ironically, in the industry that was the raison d’être for the creation of the GLA—the foreshore industry, as it came out of the tragedy of the cockle-pickers—90 per cent of gangmaster operations are still not licensed. A priority for the GLA is to move from registration to effective enforcement of the existing law, which means enforcement of the national minimum wage, employment agency status, work time, tax, health and safety, and all the other regulations that would apply irrespective of whether licensing is in place.
It would not be accurate to say—indeed, no one did—that employment sectors outside those covered by the GLA are not regulated. They are regulated by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. They are also subject to inspections by HM Revenue and Customs, the HSE and other workplace bodies, irrespective of whether they are registered or not.
The EAS responds to all complaints and carries out targeted risk-based proactive inspections. It sees its approach of spot checks as the most intelligent way of dealing with the problems that exist. As regards taking the GLA model across all industries, the Government are not convinced that the licensing of gangmasters—for example, those operating in construction—would be a targeted, proportionate or effective way of tackling safety challenges in the construction sector. It would have only a minor effect on health and safety outcomes, as under construction health and safety legislation duty holders have a legal responsibility of their own irrespective of their employment status. Equal protection is provided to all. In particular, the principal or main contractor has responsibilities for ensuring the health and safety of all individuals who work on a construction site, irrespective of the formal employer. I am also told that it would have a limited impact because only about 3 per cent of construction workers are agency workers.
However, I want to reassure the House that the Government are keeping the issue in the construction sector under close review and are taking targeted steps to tackle the problem. These include joint consultation with HM Revenue and Customs on proposals for tackling false self-employment. The proposed tax changes will lead to a more appropriate treatment of workers and a culture of responsible employers applying employment rights. The HSE has recently recruited more than 20 new inspectors with construction industry backgrounds to support the work of existing inspectors.
There are many other points that I want to address but, recognising the limited time at my disposal, I will look to some that I have not covered so far. The major issue, which is difficult and has been around for some time, was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich—the question of an amnesty. There are those who favour it and those who believe that it is a one-off solution. Unfortunately there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the pull of an amnesty will only encourage more people to seek not only to be legal migrants but to be illegal migrants on the grounds that once you get in, at some stage you will be legalised. We know the difficulties that we already have at the borders and why we have a strong system of resisting entry to those who should not legally be allowed in. Therefore, the Government remain unconvinced that an amnesty provides a solution.
My noble friend Lord Haskel made a good point that is often lost in our discussions about the European Union. It is that we enjoy a two-way freedom. We hear that there is a danger of EU nationals coming here and perhaps threatening British jobs. I endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, and others who said that this country owes a tremendous amount to migrants. I am the son of migrants, albeit from the Irish Republic, who claim to be part of Britain. I have to say that given my grandfather’s political sentiments, he would never have claimed that. However, my noble friend Lord Haskel made the point that we have a two-way street. Not only do 6 million people go on holiday to Europe every year, but more than 580,000 Brits work in Europe. British firms have some 47,000 British people working in all parts of Europe—in the new emerging countries and also in the older established EU countries. Therefore, when talking about migration, we often forget the advantages for workers in this country of being able to migrate to other parts of Europe.
An important point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger—namely that there is a link between illegal migration, exploitation and crime. We saw it classically in the case of the cockle pickers, but it is not the only one.
Interestingly enough, in my previous incarnation as director of the International Labour Organisation in London, I had people saying to me, “Isn’t it disturbing”, when someone in Scotland who had exploited about 600 people was not put in prison for trafficking or for the exploitation. He went to prison for a considerable period—I think that it was eight years—but the point is that he was not charged with those offences for the simple reason that there were other offences for which he could be charged that would guarantee that he would spend a long time at Her Majesty's pleasure that were easier to prosecute than the charge of exploitation of workers.
That was to the chagrin of people who wanted to show that the law would protect workers. It had the effect of taking the person out of the exploitation and therefore releasing a lot of people from his evil grip, but there is the issue of crime. That is why we must continue to have both strong borders and a strong managed migration policy and, at the same time, recognise that people who come to this country are indeed equal in front of the law as legal migrants and have all the same rights, and ensure that those rights will be enforced as they would be for British citizens.
I know that I have missed a number of points. I will look very carefully at Hansard tomorrow and write to noble Lords on any of the points that I missed or, indeed, any points that would benefit from amplification.
House adjourned at 6.36 pm.